Friday, August 22, 2014

Prepared for Disasters?

The current spate of wet weather makes it difficult to believe that the monsoon has actually been weak this year. Look around, rain-triggered collapses and damage are being reported only now, when the monsoon [if seasons follow any timetable any more] should be on its way out. That is perhaps not happening this season, and the final weeks of the rains appear intent on pouring some wreckage around these hills. Hopefully that will not be the case and should some sections give way, hopefully they will be on the overburdened and much-abused road formations. Here’s hoping that habitations get overlooked this year. That said, the latest collapse at Seleley in South Sikkim, where both, a road formation and water supply network have been demolished, along with hardships [by way of nervy transshipments] imposed on residents, triggers some worries about the state of Sikkim’s disaster preparedness. This is not to say that Seleley caught anyone off guard or under-prepared, but is just a wondering aloud triggered by the reminder that Sikkim’s slopes have been traditionally unstable and its slides huge and scary. The weak monsoon appears to have lulled many into a false sense of security, but it is towards the fag end of disaster season that all concerned should be even more wary.
Sikkim has always lived with landslides and earthquakes. It is a zone primed for natural disasters and if ‘awareness’ about them is still required, it throws up the question of how and why local pragmatism was lost leading to a situation where people here still manage to get caught by surprise when a landslide or an earthquake strikes. Despite the horror of September 2011 and the many slides before and after that watershed event, Sikkim still lacks intelligent urban planning or a coherent disaster mitigation plan. Its roads, over which rescue and relief will have to travel, are still most often the first casualties of any severe event – whether a landslide, earthquake or even an impromptu protest. Houses continue to be constructed in cramped corners and with dodgy engineering. For now, let us also drop any further comments on how the disaster awareness camps were conducted and proceed with the acceptance that when disaster strikes, Sikkim will again be ill-prepared and caught off-guard. Let us also accept that despite all the expert studies, land stability maps and building bylaws, Sikkim will continue flirting with disaster and continue constructing and developing irresponsibly. All plans for disaster mitigation should now build from this premise. Disaster mitigation plans and training for, say a mega earthquake rippling through Gangtok, should be imparted to residents of Ranka, Luing, Rumtek, Rhey Khola etc. because the only help and assistance for the victims here will have to come from these surrounding villages. The disaster mitigation plans have to identify support and rescue groups from the surrounding areas. This is not half as hare-brained as it sounds. Surrounding areas should be sensitized on how they can help neighbouring areas in distress.
And while on that topic, one notices the near absence of what were once too many disaster awareness programmes and workshops being held in Sikkim. In the absence of any other effort, may be these sessions should be held all year round, they will eventually grow out of the talking-down syndrome and then perhaps intelligent disaster mitigation plans will get drafted and refined. Till then, all the best…

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