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Beyond the faultline

The earthquake that killed over a hundred people in Sikkim and left behind a trail of destruction.

Written by Madhuparna Das |
September 25, 2011 2:26:53 am

The earthquake that killed over a hundred people in Sikkim and left behind a trail of destruction,showed what the state has been missing all these years: infrastructure

Manu Lepcha rummages through the rubble that was once her home. She sifts through the debris,picking out her children’s books,pencils and a small suitcase,belongings that once filled her house and made it home.

Her village Manul in North Sikkim is no stranger to disaster but the earthquake that shook Sikkim last Sunday left it devastated like never before. A signboard leading up to the village reads: ‘A troubled zone since 1983.’ According to unofficial sources,at least four to five people are killed in landslides and flashfloods every month during the rains in the region. “We are used to landslides and flashfloods,” says Manu,“but this is awfully terrible.”

When night falls,Manu returns to the army tent set up at the nearby Naga village where scores of others from neigbouring villages come at sundown. “There is no government relief home,” she says. “We often hear people describing our land as the land of disasters. Landslides,mudslips,flashfloods and snowfalls in the high altitudes hit us in regular cycles. We have come to live with nature’s fury and accept the hazards. But we have never seen anything like this earthquake,” says Manu.

Even before the quake,Manul and its neigbouring villages in East Sikkim have led an isolated life,with little access to a police station,hospital or market. Villages here are made of 25-35 houses,scattered along both sides of the road. Government records put the population of north Sikkim at 22,000.

For most of the year,these villages lie behind a veil of mist and rain. The earthquake last Sunday that measured 6.9 on the Richter scale—the biggest in the last three decades— killed over a 100 people and left behind a trail of devastation. It also brought Sikkim some rare attention from the rest of the country and

highlighted its abiding problem: missing infrastructure.

“Had there not been an earthquake,no attention would have been given to this area. We always lived this way. We drink water from the mountain springs. We do not have electricity. Our kids have to walk down for six km through the hilly roads to reach a primary school,” says Manu.

The earthquake showed how this strategically located state has largely been off the radar of development,

infrastructure and planned growth. It exposed how the state,which is classified ‘1’ on the seismicity scale—putting it in the zone with the highest risk—did not have a dedicated disaster management department.

Land revenue secretary B K Kharel says,“We have formed a disaster control committee complying with the guidelines of the Disaster Management Act,2005. It is a statutory body. Moreover,we have a District Disaster Management Authority under which we have trained engineers and skilled workers for managing natural disasters. We have supplemented our disaster control team with civil defence people who are non-governmental workers.” But,he acknowledges,“We have to give a serious thought to strengthening our disaster management system.”

***

A makeshift health camp stands on the road from Gangtok to Manul. The camp run by the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) has a table,chair and some medicines. Premkit Lepcha,Manu’s 14-year-old daughter,says,“My brother was trapped under debris and received critical injuries. But he was treated two days after the incident. Had it not been an earthquake and had it been just a landslide or a mudslide,nobody would have bothered to open a health camp here. We do not have even a primary health centre here.”

The hospital in Mangan,the headquarters of North Sikkim,is more like a primary health centre and the nearest hospital is the Singtham Hospital in East Sikkim district,some 50 km away.

After the earthquake,local hospitals—two near Gangtok—struggled to treat the critically injured. At the Singtham Hospital,which has three medical officers,15 doctors and 100 beds,there is no facility for medical investigation other than an X-Ray machine.

Dr Wangyal Dorjee,district medical superintendent,says,“With this infrastructure,we treated 78 patients on the day of the quake. Our hospital was without electricity for 48 hours after the earthquake. We could not perform any tests and could only administer first aids to the patients.”

***

At Kokole village near Manul,villagers join in the road rebuilding efforts. Ranjana Subba,an 18-year-old villager who is working on the roads says,“We are literate,but we do not have any scope for higher education. We have primary schools in our village. So after school,we start working as labourers.”

These villages have few access roads,which means relief has to be carried out by helicopters and soldiers. Two national highways—NH 31 and NH31A—that connect Gangtok with Siliguri in West Bengal have been badly damaged.

The state’s roads have,in fact,never been in good condition,prompting the Sikkim High Court to take a suo moto cognizance of them in 2010—it issued notices to the Central and State agencies concerned,including ministries of home,defence,finance and surface transport. Sikkim currently does not have any airports or rail heads because of its terrain.

The state’s missing infrastructure explained in part why even after a few days of the earthquake,more than 20 villages in North Sikkim remained cut off and more than 10,000 people stayed marooned.

Sikkim: The state of affairs

Covering an area of 7,096 sq km,Sikkim is the least-populated and third-smallest state after Goa and Delhi. Sikkim shares its border with the state of West Bengal and the neighbouring countries of Nepal,Bhutan and Tibet.

Sikkim has a total road length of 2,873 km with a road density of 41 km per 100 sq km. The state is connected to West Bengal and rest of India through National Highway 31A.

Rail connectivity is being created between Rangpoo in the state and Siliguri in West Bengal. An airport is coming up in Pakyong; currently,helicopter services are available from Bagdogra (West Bengal) to Gangtok.

As of March 2009,Sikkim had a total installed power generation capacity of 46.1 MW,which comprised 5 MW of diesel power and 41.1 MW of hydroelectric power. The state has approved 30 new hydro electric power plants,which are at various stages of construction and would have an installed capacity of 5,352.7 MW when complete.

Because you care–The Indian Express Citizens’ Initiative

The earthquake that hit Sikkim on September 18 has left thousands homeless. The number of the dead is rising and survivors face a harsh festival season. To help them pick up the pieces,The Indian Express has set up a relief fund.

EXPRESS CITIZENS’ RELIEF FUND

All contributions are eligible for tax deduction under Sec 80G. Please mention your address (including pin code) and Permanant Account Number (PAN) so we can send you your tax-exemption certificates.

We will keep you posted on how your contribution will make a difference.

You may send your cheques payable to:

Indian Express Citizens’ Relief Fund,

The Indian Express,Express Building,9/10 Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg,New Delhi 110002

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