Editorial: Planning Well Means Preparing for the Worst

April 7, 2019

Not everything can be left to fate because history carries enough lessons
An evening of torrential downpour scoures the roads, leaving them pock-marked with potholes and sinks. If strong winds come along, branches and trees litter places they should not be invading. This scenario plays out with clockwork precision every time the skies open up in Sikkim, but it is not the rain’s fault that roads and slopes take such a battering – what gets reinforced is the failure of the capital’s drainage system (if at all it can be called that). The present showers are technically not even the nor’westers yet and are still erratic westerly disturbances, but even if these carry such potential for damage, one shudders to think what June and July have in store. It is never too late to start learning, and it is even more apt when the worries of manmade disasters are discussed on the anniversary of what is probably the worst catastrophe of development. On that note, let us try and learn from the past in a distant land. 
On 26 April in 1986, the world’s worst nuclear fallout took place at Chernobyl in what was still USSR. It was not a nuclear bomb that released radiation several times higher than the atom bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but a peaceful nuclear power plant. Most people have forgotten Chernobyl and to jog memories a bit it is worth recording that Chernobyl had state of the art [even by present standards] safety mechanisms in place. The whole incident was a horrific accident; an experiment that went wrong with no mala fide intent. An area extending 30 KMs on all sides of the reactor remains heavily poisoned, with officials estimating that it would not be safe for human life again for another 20,000 years. On an aside, tourists though can make quick daytrips to the area which is also seeing some civil works to further contain the ground zero.
The reason remembering Chernobyl makes sense in Sikkim is because the State too has been on a heightened development mode, a condition made risky by the short-cut engineering and still dodgy civil works. The lesson to be learnt from Chernobyl is not that things “go wrong,” rather, it is that things “could always go wrong.” We learn from the past, and not always our own, not to abandon ideas, but to avoid the mistakes. Sikkim has identified hydel as one of its thrust sectors for the economy. No one can fault this attention since better lettered experts have zeroed in on this option. What the State needs to ensure is that all worst-case-scenarios are identified and back-up plans worked-in in advance. This process has to be frank and open and every fear, no matter how far-fetched it sounds, addressed and prepared for. Yes, most will roll their eyes and point out that Sikkim has missed that bus already, but the dams are going to be around for many more decades even if constructions have ended. It is thus still not too late to commission a study on post-hydel project situations [studying especially the already commissioned projects]. This study could delve into how the affected people adjusted to new lifestyles, how they managed their compensation kitties, how the projects affected the socio-cultural environment, what kind of unexpected fallouts came about etc. And it could also project the potential catastrophes that these manmade interventions on what were once free-flowing rivers can wreck. 
We got a sense of this aspect being addressed from the several NDRF disaster drills undertaken at settlements along rivers which have hydel projects upstream. While these drills are welcome, one wonders if there is any science being deployed to the scale of manmade disasters being prepared for.
Here, one would also like t reiterate that if the pro-hydel lobby was so worried with the risks posed by the Mantam lake to projects downstream, how is it that the dams, which hold back much more water, are not flagged for the risks they pose. Again, not necessarily because of faulty design, but because of scenarios they are not adequately prepped for like a mega-quake of a massive landslide into the reservoir itself.
Agreed, our country does not believe in such preparations, but that does not mean that Sikkim should not? The area of study is still very manageable and even a small team of dedicated scholars [it has to be scholars, not bureaucrats or ex-hydel sector employees] can carry out such a study and the findings could end up ensuring that development happens at minimal human cost in Sikkim, and the State continues to show the nation how things should be done. 
It is time that Sikkim realized that uninformed decisions and not preparing for the worst leaves everyone vulnerable. Take Gangtok’s example, it was allowed to urbanise in a free for all, and now, everything from fighting fires to fleeing earthquakes to avoiding landslides and repairing roads presents a logistical nightmare. Had the planners planned at least with the obvious threats in mind, Gangtokians would not find themselves in a situation where all they can do is build and pray. All developmental works for the future should rely more on planning and not just the grace of guardian deities.

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