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    Posted on 24 September 2012

    Chungthang: The ghost town battles its own demons

    Scarred by hydro projects, devastated by earthquakes, and severed from India by landslips—Chungthang is symptomatic of how people have been let down in the face of an evident tragedy. Tehelka is the first media to report from this god-forsaken town, which has been left to rot— an expensive mistake that could have strategic implications for India.

    Nature's fury Collapsed roads in Lathay enroute Chungthang from Mangan

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    It is just 36 kilometers. But it seems like a lifetime to reach Chungthang from the district headquarters of Mangan in North Sikkim. Walking through treacherous landslides, intimidating mountain collapses, persistent rock fall and deceiving mudflows, distances can no longer be expressed in figures. This is the first account by any journalist from the town of Chungthang, which was the epicentre of the earthquake on 18 September last year, and has now been severed from the rest of the country by massive landslips owing to persistent rain, unstable geology and human ignorance. Right now the border of India with China ends at Mangan, and everything else includes towns in desolation waiting for help to arrive.

    More than words, the pictures tell a story. But there are some things the human mind captures more than a mere camera lens. On the look of it, Chungthang resembles a ghost-town. As if frozen in time since the tremors ruined the town and its people last year. Of all tragedies here, the one that catches the eye and the mind is the total devastation at the ITBP camp in Pegong. It is quite unfortunate that this reporter has to confirm to relatives of ITBP personnel, who call from small towns in UP, that their near and dear have been washed away. For the Sikkim administration is basking in its ignorance, totally in the dark of what has transpired in the remote North. Cut-off from reality as it is from the roads that connect this devastated town to the rest of the country. ITBP personnel still keep staring at their ruined base camp in Pegong—hoping that those officers with their wives and children who were washed away would reappear miraculously. But the raging waters of the Teesta and the falling mountains have not spared those who come in its line of fury.

    Then there are the dam workers, employed but not taken care of by Teesta Urja—the company whose subcontractors are building an 1200 MW project with a massive dam at Chungthang. Workers from Orissa, West Bengal and Bihar have taken refuge at the local Guruduwara. The Sikh holy shrine at Chungthang has food stocks left for 4 days and is functioning from a small building that serves as the langar and provides shelter to all those who escaped the horrors of the landslips. The Sikhs have transported labour from Delhi to rebuild the Gurudwara, which was damaged in the earthquake last year. Damage or not, the reconstruction does not deter them from reaching out to those in desperate need of a helping hand in the face of nature's unrelenting fury.

    The locals of Chungthang are used to being ignored by their government. Consequently, the expectations are not high. But higher up from Chungthang, damaged houses and destroyed livelihoods haven't yet managed to evince a response from the Sikkim administration. Beds, cooking stoves and cupboards are now on the road. The Chief Secretary, the highest government official of Sikkim, however, has just done an aerial reconnaissance, while the reat of the government remains unresponsive. They believe that Chungthang has food stocked for a week. But not many know that it is the food stock of the local Gurudwara that is being used to take care of those badly hit by the landslide disaster.

    Photo: Sai Manish

    Right now towns in North Sikkim are like islands of desolation. Given the disappeared roads, the border of India with China ends before Mangan—a good 90 kilometers from the MacMohan line. The Centre needs to wake up, if not to the human tragedy, then at least, to the strategic consequences of turning a blind eye to a disaster in the critical border state of Sikkim.

    The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was requested by the Sikkim government to step in on 24 September, 5 days after the havoc unleashed. The Indian Army's medical teams have been on foot tending to the injured and water supply is yet to be restored to Chungthang. The tragedy of Chungthang is that nature's fury is always given a helping hand and amplified by the recklessness of the administration. The pictures tell a story not just about Chungthang but the whole of North Sikkim. Words, however, can go only so far.

    State government finally reacts to ‘crisis’

    Chief Secretary Karma Gyatso along with other officials takes aerial tour of affected areas, relief work still being largely done by locals

    Sai Manish

    Disasters often teach a lesson, but last year's disastrous earthquake seems to have taught little to the administrators of Sikkim. The Sikkim government has finally acknowledged a ‘crisis’ in the remote north of its state. Almost six days after north Sikkim was cut-off from the rest of the country, bureaucrats including the state’s chief secretary Karma Gyatso, along with senior police officials, took stock of the destruction from the sky above.

    The state’s lax reaction is a result of its desperation to shift responsibility to the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) in dealing with the disaster as it is unfolding with each passing day. The BRO is dealing with a mini tragedy of its own—as children of personnel have gone missing in the landslip that hit their outpost on Sunday. Figures available with the collectorate of the affected district indicate a grim scenario—one in which the state government has little clue about the death and destruction in the area it claims to govern. And shockingly this time too, the disaster relief work was left mainly to the locals with young men and women being forced to step in to provide relief and rehabilitation to those affected.

    Photos: Deepak Sharma

    The state government seems to be looking at the crisis with its eyes wide shut. The situation looks as hazy as it looks grim—there are 11 confirmed dead, a large number of families are missing and scores of displaced people are staring at a potential food shortage. In the worst affected town of Chungthang, the private power company Teesta Urja’s sub-contractor has lost two of its workers in a flash flood at the construction site of the 1200 MW Teesta Stage -3 dam. In addition, three workers were injured while one died while he was being taken to Gangtok for treatment. The bridge near the site has collapsed leaving people residing on the right bank of the Teesta in Chungthang stranded. Photos in Tehelka's possession shows damage to houses near the dam site.

    The BRO has been hit badly at Rangma—another devastated village on the way to Chungthang. Eight personnel are missing including two personnel who are missing with their families. More than the BRO, it is the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) which has reported heavy casualties. An officer of the ITBP, Jogender Singh, is missing. It is feared that a jawan along his wife and child have been washed away at Pegong near Chungthang.

    Eighteen families of both ITBP and BRO personnel are still reportedly missing. The district administration is not yet counting the missing as dead even though many have not been seen since 22 September. No team has been dispatched from either the Centre or the state to see if dangerous landslide lakes have developed in higher reaches. The incessant rain and rock fall have the potential to create large lakes that could burst in the event of more heavy rain and subsequent rock fall, thus endangering the district headquarters in Mangan.

    A view of the damage from Pegong where an ITBP post was hit with several families reported missing. The Teesta stage 3 dam site can be seen in the background

    What has come as a shocker though is that the Sikkim government has not airdropped food and medicines in Chungthang, Lachen and Lachung despite reports appearing in certain sections of the media about the airdropping. Gyatso, who flew in 6 days after reports surfaced about the damage, maintains that there is no need to provide food to residents of Chungthang as people of the town have food stocked for two days.

    However, the chief secretary seems to be unaware of the fact the there is no access to 4th mile where the entire mountain side has been washed away. 4th mile is a critical point that connects the area to Singhtam and Gangtok –from where the town of Chungthang, Lachen and Lachung get their regular supply of essential commodities such as milk, oil, vegetables and medicines. It is learnt that the people of Chungthang have been left with a few sacks of potatoes and two days’ supply of rice. Gyatso speaking to Tehelka at the Ringim Helipad near Mangan denied that the state government has been late in reacting to the situation. The state government has been claiming that an ex-gratia has been given to displaced people.

    The state government including its chief secretary, however, pledges ignorance when asked about the amount of money that has been given to the dead and displaced. The relief and rescue in Lachung is being completely done by the Army as it has a forward base at Lachung in coordination with the Indian Airforce.

    With time, it is becoming evident that people in the worst-affected parts are running out of time as towns in the remote northeast have been reduced to isolated islands—severed from each other by collapsing blocks of mountains. Even exaggerated claims of re-opening routes fail to excite the locals who have seen another tragedy unfold before their eyes after the devastating earthquake on 18 September 2011. For the state and its people, it’s one deja-vu they could have done without.

    Sai Manish is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.
    [email protected]

    Ground report: Landslides wreak havoc in North Sikkim
    A year after the massive earthquake, Sikkim is now in the grip of another natural disaster. Landslips have so far claimed seven lives and more than 20 people have been reported to be missing. The situation is growing grimmer by the day in areas that have been completely cut-off from the rest of the country. Sai Manish reports from Mangan.Read More >

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    Posted on 24 September 2012



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