By Dr. Satyadeep S. Chhetri

What happens when we are all rattled by an Earthhquake ? …. We realize how fragile we are . We realize the inability do anything. We watch the destruction on television . We share pictures of devastation on social media and Whatssapp and of course …and Yes! we mark ourselves ‘Safe’ on Facebook . Every now and then, the sikkimese populace is jolted with memories of the September 18th quake. Be it the Nepal quake or the quake in Burma or even in distant Italy. As prayers were being offered to gods and messages of hope and strength shared across all platforms , There is also a strong sense of gratitude to the almighty that “ Thank God it did not happen here”.

What happened when ‘Aila’ the Cyclone struck the North Bengal and Darjeeling hills a couple of years back. Destruction and damages is what we saw. Both mentally and physically. But we also witnessed how Disaster preparedness in Odisha scaled down the damages and loss of lives during the recent ‘Fani’ Cyclone. Good planning always helps .

A few years back , a high ranging officer in the Sikkim government asked me as to what dangers could I foresee. Well, he might have been asking some inputs on the socio political conditions. I just said Cloud Burst. We often hear about Cloud Burst and the large scale devastation across the western Himalaya. With the fragile topographical structure of our land form, a cloud burst of even a small magnitude may cause unassuming devastation. Mantam Lake formation is a classic example. An artificial lake was created almost overnight due to a natural landslide blocking a river . If reports published in the media and scientific reports is to be believed, there is a huge concern especially for downstream habitations like Singtam and Rangpo. A cloud burst in those regions could also mean the overflowing of all the dams across the Teesta basin . Even the life line of Sikkim (NH10) is extremely vulnerable. The floods in 68’ is still a harsh reminder of the imminent danger

So the big question now is
Are we Disaster Risk prepared ?
Are we Disaster Risk Resilient ?

The answers to these questions have to be digested with a pinch of salt.
A small rainfall exhibits the drainage and sewerage woes of the town. There are areas within the town where houses have been built even without a proper drainage system or have even blocked drains to build their houses. A recent report in this some newspaper showed how building materials were dumped on the roadside which got carried into the small gaps of the iron grid drain covers thereby blocking the drains and making it incapable to drain out storm water. So where does this water go??? It actually seeps into the land around the building and weakens the foundations of the same building. A mild jolt in this case may be devastating for the same building. Recently in my own locality I have seen a drain starting from nowhere and going nowhere. I hear that some residents had written letter to the District Collector, however no action had been taken. Its more than year now.

The next thought that comes to my mind is that small hill towns like Gangtok , Namchi , Darjeeling ,Kalimpong , Shillong , Shimla , Nainital , Aizawl etc are all old settlements and are all near or situated on the fault lines that rattles us every now and then . Due to the linear growth pattern all these cities and towns have a similar view when it comes to urban buildings . The houses look like a pack of matchboxes stacked one against the other. One of my friend called these Urban Shanties.
Buildings are anywhere in the size of four floors to nine floors. These are dangerous and are potential threats. It is not only for the residents of the building but also for the ones around it. If any one of the building topples , it is sure to land on some other building since the stacking is too close.

Have we done an audit on the health of old building?
Have we even guided the owners on how they should take precautionary measures ?

Well the answer is obvious again. Further all these hill towns and cities have an extremely high population density with no open areas in the vicinity. Everyone is left to nature’s mercy. Meetings, Seminars and workshops that keep happening all around the country and even in our own state about Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) brings about only a long drawn paper trail. The work on the ground still needs a careful relook.. Other than some statistics and recommendations of what is and what should be there, these seminars have not do achieved anything substantial at ground zero. It’s just a field day for some and an academic exercise for others. I am sure we have heard enough and we all certainly know our problem and also the plausible solutions. We even know what damage could take place and how we should respond to it. I have heard that during one of the workshop, a demonstration on safety techniques was being done when a mild earthquake jolted the hall. Unfortunately , the first thing that everyone did was to try and run out…. But sad …. we do not even have enough open space.

The final question of course would be

Have the earlier natural happenings taught us anything ? Have we learnt anything from it ?

I am sure all would agree with me that we have but there is much to be done in this regard. A small fire in the traffic choked Gangtok would take ages for the fire fighter to reach the spot. Disasters bring about a feeling of hopelessness. Hopelessness not because we are at the beck and call of nature but due to the helplessness that we seem to have instilled in our minds as we are not disaster ready. The powers that move and shake the earth is inevitable. Yet we have somewhat eluded ourselves from even the thought that it will never happen to us.

Perhaps it is again time for us in Sikkim to reboot and do the needful. Some suggestions have been mentioned below-

a. to do the regular mock drills , create disaster ready sheds, have small pockets with essential disaster fighting equipment like ropes , tarpaulin, etc in every locality and municipal wards.

b. realign disaster ready people and civil defence in every locality and in any event have a proper chain of instruction and standard operating procedures.

c. Proper and better dissemination of information have to be made public.

d. Make it mandatory for every building to have at least one trained person.

In this way even if any such disaster would strike, we will be in a position to minimize the loss of human lives …. At least!!!

The writer is a regular columnist and can be contacted at )

NB: Views/Opinions expressed in the article or write up is purely of the author or writer. For any queries or contradictions the author can be contacted in his/her email id.

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