Editorial: Disaster Mitigation

It is that time of the year again The pre-monsoon rains have opened strong this time around and have already started scratching at the hill sides. The monsoon is scheduled to hit Kerala in a fortnight’s time and, if all goes well, will officially debut in Sikkim a few days later. And, if the nor’wester showers coursing through the State are any indication of what the monsoon months will bring, Sikkim would be well advised to do much more by way of preparedness than the occasional preparedness meetings over cold tea and stale samosas. The State, in fact the entire region, needs no reminding of how fragile its hills are. The slopes here have a long history of slips and slides and if anyone bothered to spend time with some of the village elders, they could also learn of how settlements came to be settled along safer zones and more stable locations. That traditional knowledge was honed over generations of living here, but now “development” has been added to this organic lifestyle mix. Roads, projects, constructions and expansions are disruptors too powerful for even rural pragmatism to manage, hence the need for more informed preparedness and quicker, more organized responses. Unfortunately for the cause of disaster management awareness, the monsoon-opening landslips and road-blocks have bypassed Gangtok thus far in their severity if one were to ignore the sewage sinks and overflowing storm drains which mostly manifest after dark and are invariably cleared by the Gangtok Beautifiers before Gangtok wakes up. That, however, cannot be said for the districts, their roads and their habitations. The reason this is referred to as ‘unfortunate’ for disaster management awareness is because while areas beyond Gangtok are the ones which require better warning systems, more effective responses and more elaborate community-based training to minimize the destruction caused by monsoon calamities, the people who can influence decisions rarely see beyond Gangtok. Even the media has not effectively highlighted the problem of areas beyond the capital, in as much as rain-fed disruptions are concerned. To understand how locational reactions work, take the case of two incidents. The 1997 landslides in Gangtok were unfortunate and the scale unprecedented. They rightfully led to the creation of a Civil Defence programme, formalization of new building bylaws and the no construction during monsoons rule. In the year 2004, Gyalshing and areas around Namchi were ravaged by severe landslides, mud-slips and flash floods. And two years back, there was the Mantam hillside collapse, which, even though not monsoon-induced, was more evidence of the fragility of the slopes here and the need to save the hills. One still does not know what really caused it, or what policy course-corrections that incident has resulted in. Ditto for the flash floods and glacial lakes-threat reported from North Sikkim over the recent years. In all these cases, the administration responded to a natural calamity, carried out rescue and relief operations, but, as mentioned, one is yet to hear of any policy decisions which could effectively mitigate such devastations in the future. Every time a landslide occurs or a road-widening work collapses, as is commonly reported from West Sikkim, one hears complaints against unplanned constructions, irresponsible drainage and unsafe worksites. There is nothing new in these observations. Still, after all these years, the districts remain knee-jerk in their response to the annual monsoons. All this, despite the fact that just about everybody, everywhere, is participating in disaster risk management committee meetings all over Sikkim, and yet when the first chance arrives to display their training and commitment, they are found wanting. The problem is neither with the training nor with the individuals, it is with motivation. Sikkim is speaking of disaster risk management committees not because the people demanded it or even knew of it, these are being set up only because a central directive ordered it and UNDP funds it. That said, Sikkim could genuinely use some scientific and organized response to natural calamities. Instead of just making a token presence in such committees, the members should realize that every village in the State needs to work out a coherent and rehearsed response to calamities and set up a working advance warning system. If Sikkim continues to drag its feet, the State will continue paying the price for it every year.