Editorial: Cannot Afford to Forget

But is just remembering enough?

Next Tuesday will mark seventh anniversary of 18 September Earthquake, that monumental event which pulled a wicked surprise on Sikkim, not an easy trick to play on a region which has lived for centuries with extreme weather conditions and temperamental plate tectonics. After the temblor had coursed through Sikkim, around 8,000 homes had been rendered too dangerous to be habitable anymore and heritage, both tangible and intangible, had been damaged beyond salvaging. Several of the monasteries are still in the process of reconstruction, the administrative headquarters of the State still functions out of a borrowed facility, around 1,200 of the destroyed rural homes are still being “reconstructed” under the ambitious REDRH project and the most ambitious hydel project in the State is only now on the verge of being commissioned, having finally shaken off the earthquake setback. Since the earthquake reminded Sikkim of the tectonic realities which lie underneath, Sikkim has been reintroduced to some other extremes of its setting – from flashfloods, to forest fires to landslides to GLOFs, over the past five years, the Sikkimese have experience the whole spectrum of the Sikkim experience – at one time luxuriating at nature at its most indulgent and at others cowering under nature at its most devastating. Against this backdrop, disaster preparedness should receive a relook, hopefully a more nuanced retouch given the significance of the upcoming weekend. Sikkim should not forget that the surprise of 18/09/11 stemmed not so much from the unprecedented scale of the earthquake as from the inexcusable fact that Sikkim forgot that it occupies among the more disaster-prone sectors of the subcontinent. As for the earthquake itself, the only surprise it can stake claim to is in its confirmation that Sikkim harboured tectonic potential to push a 6.8 scale earthquake. Through the recorded history of earthquakes in the region, the big ones of the past century and a half [which wreaked substantial damage in Sikkim as well] had been earthquakes with their epicentres at “established/ identified” trouble-spots - fault-lines many hundred kilometres away from Sikkim. In some warped sense of misplaced security, this had apparently convinced people and policy-makers at a subconscious level that the State could do very little to cushion the impact of the next big one and that Sikkim’s distance from the expected ground zeros would absorb some of the ferocity and dissipate the impact. This was admittedly wrong because no one can prevent an earthquake, but everyone can and should work towards mitigating it. And now, even the excuse of distance is no longer available with the tectonic plates on which Sikkim sits broadcasting in very clear terms that even they can pack a mean punch. In effect then, natural disasters are no longer about ‘if’ and ‘when’ and have now become ‘here and now’. And now, as the amplified fury of end-monsoon showers are battering the highways and patches of patchy hill slopes, it’s not just about earthquakes, but a host of other challenges like landslides, cloudbursts, GLOFs etc and if the winter runs dry, there will be forest fires and man-animal conflicts as well. Natural disasters do not play in isolation and when these incidents achieve disaster proportions, they work in combinations. Seven years since the devastation of September 2011, yes, it has been that many years, after Sikkim has recollected the experience and taken stock of repairs and restoration, it should test the practicability and resoluteness of its proposed responses for future calamities. Modern lifestyles have a way of blindsiding obvious realities, and if any lesson is to be learnt from the 18 September horror, it should be in rediscovering the traditional knowledge base. Centuries of living in a particular region grooms people to instinctively respect the brute force of nature and adopt lifestyles which mitigate the impact of the nature of disasters indigenous to a particular region. Sikkim obviously had this, but lost it in the past fifty years or so. These need to be re-remembered and all disaster preparedness plans should respect the knowhow of resident populations and reinforce traditional practices with scientific verification and planning. This anniversary, Sikkim should make sure that it does not forget – not just the earthquake and the affected – but also the traditional knowledge base which served its people well in the past.