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The Sikkim Disaster points to worrisome activities across Himalayas


By Ranajoy Sen

A natural calamity with attendant distressful consequences has swept across the Himalayan state of Sikkim. A large glacial lake collapsed, causing an acute flood, downstream. It has poured its baneful effect upon human settlements in several parts of the state. This Indian state is also a repository of abundance of nature’s beauty. Conversely, incessant buildings and concrete structures which violate most rules and norms of mountain construction and environmental parameters can also be discerned here. Consequentially, increasingly pernicious aftermaths of natural calamities across towns and human settlements in different states, lying across the Indian Himalayas, are perennially seen. The Sikkim disaster has had spillover effects, southward, in Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts of adjoining West Bengal.

In 2013, the devastating flash floods in the Kedarnath region of Uttarakhand brought grief and misery to hundreds of people. The collapse of the hill town of Joshimath in Uttarakhand, last winter, indicated that admonitory calls for rectifying the disturbed balance of nature in the Himalayas have gone unheeded for too long. At present, nature’s fury has manifested upon Sikkim through a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) in that state. A Glaciology and Hydrology expert has stated that heavy precipitation in northern Sikkim is possibly the cause for actuating the GLOF from South Lohnak pro-glacial lake.

This lake has been expanding over a few decades and was among the region’s potential dangerous lakes. Researchers had investigated the lake and had warned about its potential hazard way back in 2021. Even then, that warning possibly went unattended. The resultant outcome appears very grim. The GLOF has caused acute damage to human life and property. Till latest count, the death toll is 73 persons. It is not yet known as to what the ultimate aftermath of this environmental disaster will tantamount to. It is being attested time and again that due to the shortsightedness of some, a steep price is being paid by many others. Nevertheless, the level of awareness and alertness needs to permeate across the populace.

The misfortune that has struck the Himalayan state of Sikkim is at a risk of being repeated at frequent intervals than otherwise. The principal reason for this is the blatant neglect of norms and parameters laid down by experts and conscious citizens as regards human activities across the mountainous terrain of the country. The two most crucial aspects were to stop the felling of trees above a certain level and to thwart the construction of concrete houses and hydropower projects in an unplanned manner. But, scant regard was paid to these warnings. Often, instances have been observed whereby the unscrupulous have gone about merrily with their narrow, harmful commercial agendas while those in authority have colluded with them or have looked the other way. The consequence has played out in natural disasters of various types. Alarmingly, the extent and the attributes of these disasters are becoming more harmful and increasing in frequency than before.

The famed Chipko movement which took place from 1973 till 1981 – whereby people had embraced trees as an effective strategy to prevent tree felling by authorised firms, and was led by the legendary Sunderlal Bahuguna, had thwarted the indiscriminate felling of trees in the Garhwal region, which was then in the state of Uttar Pradesh and is currently within Uttarakhand. Its repercussions had led to an acute awareness of the need to preserve nature across India and beyond. As a concrete gesture, the Government of India stopped the cutting of trees above an altitude of 1000 metres. But, regrettably, other pressures on the Himalayan range continued.

From the last decade of the preceded century, India witnessed a healthy growth of the middle class with disposable incomes. More people took to travelling to the mountains for holidays, commercial ventures, and as pilgrims to the sundry shrines situated across the Himalayas, spread across several Indian states. They travelled in buses, cars and SUVs. To meet their needs, a chain of hotels and boarding-houses have been built in several locations which are dangerously close to river banks, lakes, and mountain slopes. This influx of visitors put increased pressure on the roads, and led to a surge in untreated garbage. When spotlights were turned on the impending disaster that all this, cumulatively, might bring about, responses from the authorities concerned were usually more of being indifferent than actuating adequate correctives.

Sikkim and the Darjeeling and Kalimpong regions of West Bengal are among the most picturesque regions of India. The generous monsoon of the Bengal region has ensured that the mountains in that part are covered with forests. Various shades of green are a feast to the eyes of the visitor and local residents. But, on the visit to Darjeeling and south Sikkim fairly recently, this author was dismayed at the over construction of houses and buildings in that region. It came to light that most of it has probably been in violation of building norms as apt in hills and mountains. A foreboding of grim consequences weighed heavily in my mind. Inevitably, the ordeal has come, with very unfortunate aftermaths.

As rescue operations proceed apace and politicians spar accusatory verbal barbs at each other regarding the efficacy of the rescue operations in Sikkim and mountains of Bengal, the clarion call for proper rectification needs to be undertaken. All activities in sensitive ecological regions across the Himalayan belt and elsewhere in the country need to be kept under proper purview. Those with adequate knowledge of the topographies and its respective bio-diversity must be consulted and their advice heeded before embarking on any venture.