Saturday, September 13, 2014

Walking down 18 Sept 2011 RANJIT SINGH

Come 18 September, 2014 and we will get yet another opportunity to recollect and reflect on the events of 18 September, 2011. This is the 3rd anniversary of that day in 2011 when Sikkim experienced a kind of disaster which set the benchmark for infrastructure development that Sikkim is witnessing today. Sikkim paid a price that day. 66 lives were lost, many were injured, houses were flattened and entire villages reduced to debris. The earthquake triggered a series of landslides which was the major cause for the widespread damages and loss of life and property.
The question Sikkim needs to ask at this moment is how far it has come since that day in terms of lessons learnt. The day was an eye-opener to the indiscriminate and unregulated construction works of all kinds including hydel projects, ill maintained roads along with weak power lines and fragile mobile connectivity. Most of all, it brought home the realization of vulnerability – both to natural calamities and our excesses.
North district was the hardest hit. An entire village was wiped off in Dzongu, roads totally scooped out or blocked by landslides rendering habitations inaccessible. Villagers of Bey, Dzongu had to depend on air lifting of basic necessities by the army. The more courageous ventured on the long trek to Mangan to get rice and other items. With no vehicles able to ply it was a three-day trek back to home with huge sacks of rice and a forest and still usnatble slopes to negotiate. There were labourers as well who wanted to get out and fast. The earthquake had shattered their nerves; many of them, with dumbfounded faces, piled onto trucks to make their way to Singtam and onward to Siliguri – without pay. Many walked down to Singtam from Dzongu and Chungthang. The highway to Singtam was lined with such labourers who didn’t think twice about the long trek downwards. The only thought was to put as much distance between them and Sikkim. So inaccessible was north district that it was only about a week later that photos of the ground situation and damages there could be accessed.
Many labourers also were reported to go missing. With communications out and no information system in place, families, particularly mothers and wives of local labourers waited at helipads for a word; some waited for days at Mangan hoping to see a familiar face emerging from the lines of labourers making their way out.
Chungthang, the epicenter, could hardly be called a town anymore. It was a dead zone with bodies being unearthed for days from debris of collapsed structures. The people waited endlessly for help and assistance. Local administration put up a brave face to encourage the people and provide as much as it could. They also had to cater to Lachen and Lachung which, too, had become inaccessible. One remembers the long walk up to Lachen by then SDM Chungthang. However and as admitted by officials, the north district administration was overwhelmed and found itself ill equipped to handle the magnitude of the situation, as did the entire government machinery.
The most frightening experience for the people of Sikkim was probably living in darkness and without any kind of communication with the outside world for days. All power lines were down along with mobile connectivity. Candles became sought after. Anticipating another tremor people of Gangtok crowded MG Marg which became a large open air dormitory at night. Closed spaces and heights suddenly became unwanted and seemed ominous.
We certainly cannot forget the army and the NDRF which put in all their resources to pull Sikkim out of its daze. Many stranded tourists, labourers as well as locals were rescued by army choppers making sorties to the towns of Chungthang, Lachen and Lachung. These choppers also air lifted supplies and basic necessities to the villagers of these regions. They also opened relief camps. Personnel from the army and NDRF also did a remarkable job in getting the major roads cleared for vehicles and opening communication lines. Locals also came together to donate in cash and kind in order that those in need could avail of basic supplies. South and west districts too, were badly affected by the earthquake but north, particularly Chungthang, remains the face of 18 September, 2011.
Whatever the extent of trauma and loss people, sooner or later, pick up the pieces and continue with their lives. We learn to carry on and get back to our lives, daily chores and our individual train of thoughts and emotions. Sikkim did the same – and is still doing so.

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