Editorial: Sensitive to Disasters

Begin with sensitization, end with preparedness

Autumn is upon us and monsoon has officially exited the country. The winter months will set in soon, bringing with them a period of relative calm as far as natural disasters are concerned. Save the odd bush-fire, which rarely fires into habitations, there are no havocs that nature traditionally unleashes on Sikkim’s hills. Of course, there is the ever-present possibility of earthquakes, but that has nothing to do with seasons. So, as Sikkim settles into festive mood and preps for holidays and lazy Winter Sun days, it would do well to invest some time on disaster sensitization programmes. Until a few years ago, the arrival of autumn would also include a flurry of such activities at schools, panchayats, urban settings and sometimes even for elected representatives. One does not know whether these were intentionally planned for this time of the year, but they were apt in a way because they served the purpose of taking stock of what the monsoon unleashed, lessons learnt and discussions on how to prepare better for the future. Agreed, these exercises delivered little on ground, but were still better than continuing blissfully disinterested. Because such initiatives came when the monsoons were on the wane, they conveyed an intent that rose beyond the typical knee-jerkism that Sikkim displays even though it sits on an earthquake prone zone, is perpetually hit by landslides and has of late also developed a weakness for forest fires. The residents of the capital, who sit in on most decisions, must be heaving a sigh of relief that the monsoon this year, despite its duration and occasional ferocity, was lenient on Gangtok even as some other parts of the State slipped away; even more reason why a series of sensitizations are required for the urban areas because urban memories run even shorter than the traditional retention capacities of the rural folk. Take Gangtok’s example – despite the nightmares and stress delivered on it in the past decade by earthquakes, slides, even some fires etc. The earthquake of 2011 is almost forgotten and very few appear to have learned anything from the string of landslides which poured down Gangtok with devastating effect in 1997. It is worrying that the 18 Sept temblor, despite its record intensity is already a fading memory at least in as much as the do’s and don’ts go. What cannot be forgotten either is that Gangtok, and several other parts of Sikkim, also have a track record of having emptied out into the streets when rumour spread that an earthquake would be visiting again. Some of the people’s representatives who now represent urban populations must have been among the thousands who camped outdoors, scared by “fake news”. So yes, a sensitisation on urban risk management is well invested especially for the councilors because they are aware of the death-traps that urban housing infrastructure has become and will hence take easily to risk management tips, provided they are reminded often enough of the need. North Sikkim and West district were hit severely by landslides this year, cutting off villages, forcing relocation of families and traumatising with the wild rush of debris. Almost everywhere, the affected people were caught unawares [in that they had no mitigation plans ready] and the landslides were “unexpected” one is told. The correct term would really be “unprepared.” Unprepared, is inexcusable for a population that has lived with slides and shakes since forever and specially not at this juncture when there is not only a full-fledged department for Disaster Risk Management and earmarked funds as well. How can any area in Sikkim not have a risk reduction plan to limit the damage caused by landslides and earthquakes? How can any area not have a ready response plan of action spelled out and codified, still? Unless one understands the causes, how can safeguards against such disasters in the future be devised? Preparation requires accepting that a threat exists and then understanding the reasons causing them. This applies as aptly to the problem of garbage management as it does to disaster risk management. It is also important to bear in mind that subject experts are not area experts and hence speak in wide generalisations when what is really required is customised plan for Sikkim. The experts and their knowledge can be best utilised if one makes Sikkim-specific details available to them so that they can advise the State exactly where it is going wrong and what it should set right. It is here that the State fails. The knee-jerkism refuses to go away. Everyone gets busy with the distribution of relief and completion of restoration works. Of course these are required, but at the risk of sounding too repetitive, it is equally important to study what has happened. Not just study, but also remember.