Thursday, March 14, 2013

‘Worst affected Chungthang remains the least attended to’

GANGTOK, 13 March: Tseten Lepcha, the Affected Citizens of Teesta working president, has compiled an expansive document on the 18 September 2011 earthquake in Sikkim, the government response to the disaster and the present situation in North Sikkim with special focus on Chungthang which has been widely accepted as the ground zero of the earthquake, being the town to have suffered the most extensive damage. Mr. Lepcha, it may be mentioned here, is a resident of Chungthang.
The title of his study, “Chungthang: The Kalapani of the 21st Century”, sets up the tone of his analysis and Mr. Lepcha remains convinced that even though Chungthang and its surrounding areas were the worst affected by the earthquake, “the actual place of destruction and the victims were neglected and funds diverted to other places and used for other works which did not need so much urgency”.
“In fact, the priority list of the State Govt does not even mention the most affected area,” he writes.
Mr. Lepcha has put together the document from information collected through Right to Information applications filed with several departments and agencies and began releasing his compilation in a phased manner recently.
Apart from challenging several contentions of the State Government and other agencies, Mr. Lepcha has also criticised several decisions taken in the wake of the earthquake and the swath of destruction it left behind. The intention behind his document is explained in the conclusion of the first instalment of his study in which he says, “It would be best for the Govt to accept this reality and take remedial measures rather than forcefully suppress facts and bring untold suffering to the innocent and helpless aborigines.”
Mr. Lepcha rues that the White Paper on the Earthquake released by the State Government a few months ago does not record Chungthang or North Sikkim as the focal point of the earthquake. He is convinced that a conscious attempt was made to “show that the damages were widespread so that the funds could be diverted for other purposes”.
He believes that this diffusion of focus has led to a situation where even 18 months since the earthquake, the situation at Chungthang and other severely affected areas like Bey, Sakyong-Pentong in Dzongu, Lachen and Lachung remains one of “complete neglect and utter mismanagement”.
Mr. Lepcha records his differences with the manner in which the government has drawn up its Priority List which, he points out, stresses more on infrastructure at the cost of social, economic and environmental issues.
“Under established procedures or operating system, the emphasis should have been with the most serious case and the process of rebuilding and rehabilitation should have started from Chungthang and Dzongu. In Sikkim it was just the opposite. After lapse of so much time some of the schemes area now getting sanctioned, which will take another two years to complete,” he states.
The absence of an integrated approach was also noticed in the rehabilitation efforts as Mr. Lepcha points out that since the Land Revenue and Disaster Management Department did not have a proper management plan, funds were distributed to different Departments and these Department in turn used the funds “as per their own will without giving emphasis to the most affected areas...”
“The people sitting in comfort of their offices in Gangtok had no understanding of ground realities the citizens were facing. Due to this even the little that has been done is too little too late and as such it is almost like not there at all. This is almost tantamount to violation of Basic Human Rights of the people which is totally unacceptable in a free and Democratic country,” he writes.
On the scale of devastation which visited Chungthang and other parts of North Sikkim, Mr. Lepcha highlights that though hydel projects might not have been the triggering cause of the earthquake, “they were certainly the one and only contributing factor for the magnitude of the disaster in the area”.
In this regard, he draws attention to the time before the earthquake when most of the houses in Chungthang GPU, Singhik, Shipgyer,Safo, Ramom in the project affected area of the Teesta HEP Stage III were severely damaged by the continuous blasting used for project development. The damages were so severe that the public had petitioned the Govt to take necessary action, he informs, and accordingly the Mines and Geology Department had undertaken a study to scientifically ascertain the facts and the report of the Department, published in April 2010, had categorically stated: “Keeping in view of overall Geological and geo-Morphological condition of area, absence of any structure failure in the past, the main causative factor is ongoing activities especially due to underground blasting and tunnelling and their consequences. Main underground activities lies below Pegong, (HRT and other components) and further damages in future can’t be ruled out.”
Mr. Lepcha has also secured details on the scale of blastings undertaken in the affected area. In a reply to his RTI query, the Deputy Chief Controller of Explosives, East Circle, Kolkata, Teesta Urja, which is developing Stage-III, was issued licence for 20,000 kg nitrate mixture and 10,000 metres of emulsion explosives and its sister concern, Abir Infrastructure Pvt Ltd issued licence for 20,000 kgs making it a total of 40,000 Kg of explosives for Stage III. “Since 80% work is completed, it is expected that at least 30,000 to 35,000 kgs of blasting has been used on the fragile environment,” he points out. Added to this is the “pounding” of the hills by Border Roads Organisation for its road construction works, he adds.
The battering was extensive, he points out, and the most intensive in Chungthang where the dam site is located. “It is any one’s guess that the severely disturbed area just needed another jolt to cause devastation as that happened on the 18th of Sept 2011,” he infers.
Mr. Lepcha also clarifies that this analysis of the situation makes no pretence of being a scientific or academic work, but is “solely an individual effort” undertaken because the “affected families need to dwell upon the reasons due to which the saga of suffering has continued”.
He accepts that he has exposed himself to rebuttals by releasing his findings and further explains that after having gathered extensive information through RTI, he felt he had a “public responsibility and duty” to share the finding with all concerned.