The death toll in the northern district of Sikkim, worst hit by Sunday's earthquake, is steadily rising. Against the backdrop of an incipient disaster management plan, the relief operation teams are again grappling with the situation. The question of connectivity, both physical and virtual, in the North-east have emerged as the core issue once again in the Centre-periphery disconnects and deprivations. The Indian Himalayan region stretches over 2,500 km, covering 12 states. Among these, the Sikkim and Darjeeling belts are ecologically in the most fragile zone and seismologically most vulnerable Zone 5. They are border states and subject to serious cross-border environmental damage.
Many reports have highlighted the criticality of connectivity for the development, sustenance and integration of the region. However, the blatant lack of political sagacity, absence of bureaucratic resurgence, and a feeble civil society have eaten the vitals of this region. These border states require state-of-the-art infrastructure in view of the development projects being undertaken to strengthen national security and match the changing dynamics on the other side of the border.
An accident or a small landslide can dislocate the entire national highway for hours, sometimes even days. Road dislocation happens routinely in national highways in the entire North-east. The quality of repairs is so poor that most repaired roads wear out within a fortnight. In August 2007, NH 31A remained closed for over 25 days. There was a hue and cry, but the situation didn't improve. The Border Road Organisation (BRO) is responsible for the building and maintenance of most of these roads. But it has blatantly ignored two vital rules of building roads in mountain areas: one, the road must have a drain on the side of the hill slope so that the water trickling down can be channelised; two, the sinking area requires careful maintenance, and rocks and mud that fill up the sinks must be removed.
There is no drain at all and, hence, rainwater comes down and flows downhill through the road. In the district of Ilam in neighbouring Nepal, there are examples of roads with huge drains.
Massive concrete-based development projects underway in the mountain areas pose a threat to the carrying capacity of these roads. For instance, more than 20 big and small hydel energy projects are underway in Sikkim alone. It's painful to see that sinking areas are 'managed' by filling them with truckloads of rocks and mud, which sink and disappear very soon. The concerned agencies must give a guarantee of at least five years, use techniques like covering toe-cutting edges of streams and rivers and put in place measures to punish defaulters. Since the projects are time-consuming and require high degrees of engineering wisdom and precision, BRO should rework its techniques and use new technology.
We also need to inquire into the role of private players in the aftermath of the earthquake. The 40-plus seconds of quake have exposed the weakening resilience and tenacity of the private players. To improve infrastructure in this region, the authorities must shun their policy of 'incrementalism' and switch to 'transformation'.
'Save the Hills', an NGO, recently released a report that states that Darjeeling hills get, on an average, about 388 mm of rains in September. In just six days, between September 14 and 19 (just before the quake) the region received 237 mm rain, or 61% of the total rainfall. There's a need to study such correlations to develop an early warning system like the one in Bangladesh for cyclones. It's essential as the nature, frequency, depth and dimensions of natural disasters are expected to undergo changes against the impending backdrop of climate change-triggered vulnerabilities.
The disaster management programme is too government-centric and there are few trained people. The basics of disaster management must be taught at village and community levels, and in educational institutions. It's because of this lack of institutional commitment in such critical areas of interventions that the North-east, where disasters occur everyday, depends on other states for relief operations.
Mahendra P Lama is the founding vice-chancellor, Sikkim University, Gangtok
The views expressed by the author are personal