Editorial: No Longer About If

…but planning still stuck for scenarios after ‘when’

The monsoon is in retreat, and as has been typical for the past few cycles, it is reiterating the human-induced fragility of the mountain slopes with some forcefulness; time for everyone to pause and take stock. When natural disasters stop being about ‘if’ and get reinforced with the certainty of a ‘when’, you know that it is time to get worried. As far as Sikkim is concerned, this ‘when’ has been a ‘now’ for a while now. When it comes to nature, it is obvious that its violent turns cannot be prevented. However, centuries of living in a particular region grooms people to instinctively respect the brute force of nature and adopt lifestyles which mitigate their impact. This preparedness of indigenous communities needs to now be resurrected and used to guide how the deployment of the best available modern technology can make Sikkim more natural disaster resilient. The urgency to wake up to such a realisation is rung in every year when the monsoon holds Sikkim hostage to its ferocity. In the recent years alone, this urgency should have entered the red band of alarm of public consciousness with the monsoon-imposed landslides of 1997 in the heart of Gangtok and then the temblor trailer of Valentine’s Day 2006 which bookmarked the destruction which followed on 18 September 2011 with the rattle of an earthquake and the rumble of landslides. Sikkim has suffered extensive devastation to slides and quakes through history but has preferred a bury-in-the-sand approach towards preparedness of late. This is not an attempt to instigate panic - although a little panic for the right things might not be a bad idea for disaster preparedness - but a wondering aloud on when the realization will arrive that development need not always involve the destruction of something and ignorance is not something that only government-sponsored awareness programmes can dispel. One wonders what happened to the hill people’s pragmatism which streamlined lifestyles over centuries to bring it in sync with nature, only to lose it all in less than half a century of concrete-crafted development. The people of Sikkim have traditional identified the best and most secure ridges to settle their villages in, and in the past five decades, gone ahead and assaulted everything in the neighbourhood to compromise the stability of their own settlements. Reckless construction - of buildings and roads – has delivered traps which spring every monsoon and collapse too often. Neither landslides nor earthquakes are new to Sikkim; they have been around since much earlier than these hills were populated and people learned to live with it and survive the occasionally furious events. In the very recent, pre-2011 rattle, that of 2006, several buildings were damaged, and although suggestions were made to retrofit all important buildings – religious, cultural and administrative - of Sikkim, that idea found no takers. At that time, only structures which had suffered substantial damage and were too significant to be allowed to remain weak were retrofitted thanks to some aggressive lobbying by those who matter. In Gangtok, the Raj Bhavan [which had to be vacated after Valentine’s Day 2006] and Enchey Monastery received this technological assistance. These works completed just in time, it appears, to validate the need for refitted reinforcements, because when the 18 Sept 2011 quake rattled Sikkim, even though a building near Raj Bhavan collapsed and huts in the Enchey compound came down, both structures made it through the 18 September earthquake with no noticeable damage. Similarly, the State Archives Building which had been retrofitted after taking damage in the 1988 Bihar earthquake, weathered the 2006 earthquake rather well despite its proximity to Raj Bhavan which suffered substantially at the time. Tashiling Secretariat should have been considered for such reinforcement after the 2006 earthquake, but was ignored and then an entirely new building had to be constructed after the 2011 event left the secretariat to unstable. There is still time for some other structures. The Government should invest in retrofitting the more important buildings and then promote them as examples of what can be done. The technology can then be passed on to private citizens to adopt for their own constructions.