There is a lot that is beyond repair, but some things can still be salvaged
For a town that has been a capital for barely little over a century but has ‘developed’ (read expanded) only in the past three decades, Gangtok is a frightfully ill-planned hill top. Monsoons invariably leave behind calling cards ranging from the disastrous 1997 slides to routine reminders in the form of a flooded highway, scratched hillsides, slipping foundation walls and storm-drain grills exploding out of their fitments and barreling down the highway. Living in a region that signs in at Zone IV on the earthquake expectancy chart and then clocks in rainfall that can leave Cherapunji blushing at times, Gangtok residents knew what they were aspiring for when they chased files to get sites allotted and offered sheepish explanations when the construction concrete digressed extensively from the original blueprint. There is no way that nature can be made to behave any differently from the way it wants to, but better planning and effective monitoring can keep human indulgence in check and even succeed in keeping even a safety-challenged town like Gangtok safe.
If Gangtok habitations are unsafe, they are so as much because of the weather conditions here as they are because of the short-sighted decisions that the eighties and nineties are littered with. Few other places carry the ignominy of a building collapsing in an area marked out as a ‘Development Area’ or live with national highways which narrow into single-lane passages and lose blacktop with the briefest of showers. For a town that expanded only after ideas of town-planning had become the norm, Gangtok is frightfully littered with habitations, which, while they are most exposed to risk, are also most inaccessible to rescue and evacuation.
Unfortunately, there is very little that can be done for Gangtok anymore except sending up prayers to keep disasters at bay; fortunately, other towns in Sikkim that are ‘expanding’ even as the monsoons advance still have a fighting chance. District towns like Namchi, Gyalshing, even Rabongla and Singtam, are replicating the Gangtok curve of development. These towns have already reported frightful stories of buildings growing into High Tension cables and continuing with excavations even though the slopes have announced they won’t tolerate any more ‘cutting’, but there is still hope for them. Most of these growing towns now have Nagar Panchayats and municipal councils for themselves. One hopes that these bodies will eventually become about more than just situation-required [politically-correct and Aid agency-friendly] receptacles for development funds. One hopes that these urban bodies are run by people who understand urbanisation and respect the virtues of planning. One hopes that the elected members of these bodies don’t forever remain busy playing chief guests and spend more sessions brainstorming on how to develop their areas as safe zones for habitation.