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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 42, October 8, 2011

Earthquake in Sikkim: Natural Calamity and Potential Manmade Disaster

Saturday 8 October 2011, by J.J. Roy Burman

On September 18 an earthquake of the magnitude of 6.8 by the Richter scale struck Sikkim at about 6.18 pm The epicentre of the quake was located about 67 kms north-west of Gangtok—the State capital. The epicenter was located to be precise at Mangan, the headquarter, of the Sikkim North district. There were about four-to-five aftershocks of lesser intensity within five-to-six hours. Minor tremors were felt even after a few days.

The earthquake caused severe damage to the lives and property of the people. Houses tumbled, the roads cracked and more than 100 lives were lost in Sikkim, Nepal and Tibet. Maximum damage was seen in Sikkim and remote villages remained cut off for days as the roads got breached at several places. Maximum loss of lives occurred in North Sikkim. Ten lives were reportedly lost at the site of a Hydro Electric Project (HEP) in North Sikkim. At Lachung in the same district three houses are reported to have been swept away by landslide. The event saw very high level dignitaries from India visiting the State. Mamata Banerjee, the West Bengal Chief Minister, was the first to visit the State and meet the grief-stricken people. She also assured material support from her State. Rahul Gandhi, the Congress General Secretary, too made a prompt visit to the State. Pawan Kumar Chamling, the Chief Minister of Sikkim, stated that the loss of property due to the quake stood at Rs 100 lakhs crores.

The quake in Sikkim was not entirely unanticipated since it falls in the Seismic Zone IV. It witnesses frequent low intensity shallow focus micro-earthquakes. In fact, the State lies on an earthquake faultline. The Indian tectonic plane here is gradually pushing up the Eurasian plane for over the last million years. This tectonic movement can cause earthquakes of even larger intensity in the coming years to come.

For quite sometime the people in certain quarters of the State had been worrying about the viability of the HEPs that are being commissioned in Sikkim since the last three decades. The indigenous peoples of the State, particularly the Bhutias and Lepchas, have shown their resentment against the dams and large projects for long. First, they protested against the Rathong Chu project on religious and cultural grounds. They referred to the one- man commission of Ramakrishna which advocated turning down the project keeping in view the religious and cultural sentiments of the people other than the ecological factors. Keeping these in consideration, the CM, Pawan Kumar Chamling, scrapped the Rathong Chu project in 1997. He made an open statement regarding this at the Paljor stadium in Gangtok on August 20, 1997. Ironically, the Chamling Government backtracked on its earlier stance and permitted the institution of three mega projects – the 96 MW Lethang HEP, 99 MW Ting Ting HEP and 97 MW Tashiding HEP, all on the Rathong Chu river in West Sikkim. Incidentally the 96 MW Lethang HEP was rejected by the Wild Life Board, MoEF, on October 13, 2010, as it fell within the 10-km radius of the Kangchen-dzonga National Park, apart from respecting the religious sentiments of the indigenous peoples. The other two projects got clearance from the ME&F within a short time (two months) though Jairam Ramesh, the then MoEF, had expressed ignorance about the existence of these projects.

THE Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee (SIBLAC) has made several representations to many national leaders, including Sonia Gandhi, about the impending dangers of implementing these mega HEPs along with 30 other projects about to be commissioned or in the pipeline. This organisation along with the Monks of Sikkim society has urged the authorities to look into the traditional wisdom underlying the religious texts and beliefs or else natural calamities would follow. They refer to what Prof Ramakrishna, an environmental scientist from the JNU, New Delhi, had said:

This region has a number of glacial lakes in the higher reaches. These are sacred lakes. The Rathong Chu, itself a sacred river, is said to have its source in nine holy lakes at the higher elevations, close to the mountain peaks. Besides, the river in the Yoksum region itself is considered to have 109 hidden lakes. These visible and less obvious notional lakes identified by religious visionaries are said to have presiding deities, representing both good and evil. Propitiating these deities through various religious ceremonies is considered important for the welfare of the Sikkimese people. It is no wonder that Rathong Chu is the focus of religious rituals. During the Bum Chu ritual, considered holiest of all festivals, held annually at Tashiding, the Rathong Chu is said to turn white and start singing. This is the water to be collected at the point where Rathong Chu meets the Ringnya Chu attracting thousands of devotees from the State and the neighbouring region….

The Ecclestical Department, Government of Sikkim too had clearly expressed their opposition against the projects on the ground of importance and significance of the area and sacredness of River Rathong Chu.

The civil organisations also try to impress that these projects violate the Places of Worship (Special Provision) Act, 1991, which prohibits conversion or alteration or new construction or any developmental activity at the site, or in close vicinity of any place of worship or religious institution or sacred lakes or sacred peaks.

Apart from religious sentiments, certain civil society organisations came out in actions and led rallies at different places in the State. They also undertook hunger strikes for more than a year. Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) is one of the leading organisations to have directly got involved on the environment issue. Smt Spalzes Angmo. a member of the National Commission of Minorities, GOI, issued a condolence letter on September 19, 2011 for the bereaved families of the earthquake and urged in the light of tragedy that developmental and power projects should be avoided in these seismic regions.

It must be emphasised that already potential calamities have been noticed at the sites of the constructed dams. Sonam Wangdi (Sikkim Express, Gangtok: 17.8.2011) has written that siltation can cause extensive damage to the HEPs. At the Teesta V project site, the protective wall collapsed due to accumulation of silt near the sluice gate after heavy rainfall. The power plant too was closed down on June 4, 2008 (barely after four months of starting the operations) to carry out the repair work of the 120 feet high protective wall. One footbridge each at Tatopani and Tashiding were washed away due to flashfloods caused by the sudden release of water by the Rangit HEP when the water level quickly rose to 1600 cubic metres per sec as against 150-200 cu metres per second. (Wangdi, SE: 24.8.11) The long term viability of the dams and their longevity has been questioned due to the fast receding of the glaciers uphill that feed the rivers—as a result of global warming.

Wangdi (SE: 17.9.11) is also critical about the involvement of private players into the dam business in Sikkim. He points out that while two of the projects are being handled by the NHPC, a government subsidiary, the remaining 30 odd projects have been shelled out to private enterprises. Many a time the government is directly in contact with them and is working for their interest. It has been found that the Ministry officials are straightaway informing them about the environmental clearances instead of informing the State Government. The private players flaunt the government rules with great impunity. While permits are needed to enter into the Dzongu reserve area, many of their workers enter inter into the region without any valid permit. These workers are paid poorly and many of them suffer from deadly diseases like TB and they pass these on to the host community.

APART from the above drawbacks, the CAG questioned the fiscal accountability of the 35 HEPs. In its report for the year ending March, 2009 which was tabled in the Sikkim Legislative Assembly, the CAG said that the state had neither finalized its hydro power policy nor prepared a time bound plan till date for the implementation of 35 HEPs identified with an aggregate installed capacity of 5,741.2 MW in Sikkim. Absence of a firm and defined policy and a definite plan led to inconsistency in awards of projects and lack of well thought revenue model resulted in loss of potential revenue said the CAG in its report questioning transparency in award of the power projects. Open advertisement and dissemination of information was not done and instead all the projects, irrespective of the size were awarded by the State Government through the MOU route without calling for bids, the CAG observed. Even the application forms and processing charges of different projects were given at throwaway price, thus causing enormous financial loss to the State exchequer.

More importantly, as Wangdi (SE: 21.9.11) states, the State of Sikkim has stood as guarantor for the private players who have taken loans for the construction work. If the private companies do not repay the loan, either deliberately or due to genuine reasons, then the Sikkim Government as per the law shall have to settle it in the distant future when the present generation, which is responsible for multi-billion rupee loans, would have become history. Wangdi (SE: 31.8.11) also stated: “While dealing with private power developers, I understand that financial rules were not followed and the State suffered unprecedented amount of loss running into billions of rupees.” This is just the tip of the iceberg. Due to imposition of penalty at an abysmally low rate of Rs. 10,000 per MW per month for delay in commissioning of projects by the private developers, the State stood to lose between Rs 2514.29 crores and Rs 2622.76 crores per year as compared to Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir.

The indiscriminate launching of HEPs in a seismic zone is certainly a matter of concern. Thirtyfive odd power projects in a small State like Sikkim is leading to the highest density of projects globally. Little has been cared about their technical feasibility or about their social viability. Wangdi (SE: 7.9.11) reports that dam affected people have been hardly paid any compensation. At the Teesta V project site though the NHPC had released a sum of one crore sixty lakh rupees, the oustees were given only Rs 5000–20000 as compensation. There is hardly any R and R policy of the State and in places local public support has been bought over through the lure of money. Lom Al Shezum is one such organisation from the Lepcha preserve of Dzongu in North Sikkim, which is reportedly supporting the HEPs very vehe-mently. The local youth anticipated that progress and development will be ushered into their region once the projects were complete. They expected that the projects will attract a flow of tourists to their area enhancing their regular incomes. Also the MOU with the implementing agency was believed to have helped them in accruing five per cent royalty of the income of the company. Little did the Shezum expect that the epicenter of the September 18 earthquake will cover exactly their location.

No detailed study of the recent earthquake in Sikkim as yet has been done. Hence it would be injudicious to pin it down on the HEPs, but it certainly leads one to be cautious in indulging in unbridled construction of dams in a volatile seismic zone as in Sikkim and the North East India. (Jetha Sankritayan of course directly indicts the HEPs to be the cause of the 18 September earthquake. Himalaya Darpan: 22.9.11) The holy texts of the Bhutia-Lepcha people forewarn the intruders not to defile the sacred shrines landscapes not just out veneration but out of a native wisdom they enshrine towards nature. Unfortunately the State and private corporates are all for the lust of money rather than long term welfare of the people and a concern towards nature. The earthquakes of high intensity will not be a surprise therefore. This will not only mean grave danger for the people of Sikkim but also those from West Bengal and Bangladesh. The matter hence has inter-state and international ramifications.

The author is a Professor, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies, School of Social Sciences, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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