Saturday, November 8, 2014

Disastrously Under-Prepared

Disaster preparedness should undertaken on mission-mode
The 18 September 2011 Earthquake was a watershed event for Sikkim in as far as natural disasters are concerned. The scale of the earthquake was unprecedented for the mountain state and the Sikkimese should consider themselves extremely lucky that the nature of damage and number of casualties were not even close to what the temblor had potential to unleash. Yes, the damage to property and the loss of lives were higher than anything recorded in Sikkim in the past, but if one were to step back and take count, the devastation was clearly not of the scale or kind that one has seen in earthquake ravaged regions elsewhere. It was perhaps because of this relatively light penalty exacted by such a major tectonic event that Sikkim has not undertaken the disciplining so essential for a mountain state to continue living in relative security. Given that Sikkim has a history of living with natural calamities, preparedness should have been a way of life of it instead of a UNDP sponsored series of workshops. In fact, preparedness was an instinctive practice here until centralized planning started complicating everything and ruining lifestyles. And that brings one to the present situation where even those who have been working on disaster mitigation will admit that Sikkim is woefully unprepared for calamities. And it is not just lack of preparedness which hamstrings Sikkim; bad planning, irresponsible development/ construction and poor involvement amplify the potential threats. Even students preparing debate arguments from Wikipedia tips will passionately highlight that while disasters like earthquakes, landslides and floods might be “natural”, casualties are largely manmade. To understand what one is getting at here, sample this: In 2010, two earthquakes struck the Americas. The one in Haiti killed more than 300,000 people, but a much greater earthquake in Chile a few months later killed less than 600. The Chileans were better prepared, had stricter building codes and had trained rescue teams. After 18 Sept 2011, one knows that Sikkim has potential for Chile-like earthquakes. A follow-up question would then ask why then does it continue to live with Haiti-like preparedness?
There is also an attitudinal handicap at work here. The post-18 Sept months and years have been invested with rebuilding projects, rehabilitation efforts and have been marred with allegations of favouritism and victimization. The government has even come out with a white paper on the matter. Transparency and accountability are always welcome, but what has been inexcusably missing from official and public engagements has been any earnestness at learning lessons. There does not appear to have been any genuine effort towards documenting state and private response to the earthquake or recording what went right and where mistakes were made. This exercise not having been undertaken, no preparedness plan will be complete because lessons learnt on ground remain undocumented and unrecorded. And these lessons would still have only informed rescue operations. Safety will require a different level of engagement because that would demand stronger political will, a more responsible executive and a more involved citizenry.
Even if one were side-step responsibility from dealing with natural calamities and crediting such matters to acts of god, the state continues to lack excuses to explain why the rapidly urbanizing towns are developing as deathtraps. This Diwali saw two major fires in Gangtok and several minor ones were reported from across the State. No fire is easy to fight and Sikkim is lucky that it has brave firemen. It is also lucky that no fire has conflagrated into anything bigger than its limited resources and woefully understaffed firefighting units can manage. But that does not mean that such an inferno will not test Sikkim ever in the future. Preparedness thus becomes important in this aspect as well. It is not enough to rely on the commitment and professionalism of its firemen alone. Preparedness for worst case scenarios should be a policy-directed initiative and mitigation plans clearly spelled out and widely circulated.
There is so much more that needs to be said and done when it comes to Sikkim’s preparedness for disasters, but there is only so much space. Suffice to say that like the several missions that Sikkim is currently committed to, Disaster Preparedness should also be officially undertaken on mission-mode.

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