Recalling the September 18 earthquake, Sikkim University Vice-Chancellor Prof. Mahendra P. Lama says the hill areas lack sensible disaster management.

At the age of 46, he became the youngest Vice-Chancellor of a central university in 2007. Professor Mahendra P. Lama, the present and founding Vice-Chancellor of Sikkim University, is widely acclaimed for his scholarly and extensive works on the issues of human security, migration, trade, investment and energy cooperation in South Asia. Author of the first Human Development Report of Sikkim in 2001 and the first Economic Survey of Sikkim in 2007, Prof. Lama, in an interview with Sushanta Talukdar, spoke on the recent earthquake in Sikkim.

What are the lessons learnt from the September 18 earthquake that left a trail of devastation across Sikkim?

There are quite a few lessons we have learnt from this calamity. Firstly, our ability to cope up with natural disasters is still very nascent and limited.

We have not developed any formal institutions in this regard in the real sense of the term. More seriously, we suddenly realised that the robust system of community-based, voluntary management of natural calamities which remained the most pre-dominant phenomenon for centuries together is also fast vanishing. Today the disaster management task has become government centric whereas traditionally it used to be essentially community centric. Many of the States including Sikkim still do not have proper disaster management plans. We, therefore, must rethink our strategy.

Secondly, the communication system and other physical connectivities are also in a state of infancy despite so much of plans and projects.

Thirdly, the entire development dynamics in the mountain areas need to be reconsidered and reoriented in view of the fact that the casualties and destruction could be unprecedented and unmanageable if such calamities recur.

Fourthly, scientific studies and research on issues like seismology, hydrology, geo-morphology and the very nature and dimensions of natural disasters and their impact on the hills and mountain areas need to be strengthened and disseminated to the people at the grass roots. This has to be blended with traditional wisdom and belief about the impending disasters so that the communities are involved in disaster forewarning and management.

And finally, each disaster in the mountain areas is intensely integrated with other national interest issues including national security, physical dislocations and environmental injuries. This is more so as these theatres of disasters are located in the geo-politically sensitive border locations.

How can the challenge of roads blocked by landslips, hampering relief and rescue missions in States like Sikkim, be overcome?

Massive concrete-based development works that go in the mountain areas pose a serious threat to the carrying capacity of these roads. Unless the entire road construction contracting system is reviewed and a five-year guarantee is ensured by these road agencies with strong punitive measures; and techniques like covering toe-cutting edges of the streams and rivers down below is used, the situation is going to be more pathetic and vulnerable. All these are time consuming and demand a lot of engineering wisdom and precision.

Key agencies like the Border Roads Organisation have to rethink both the techniques and technology of road building in the mountain areas. Two very vital traditional wisdoms on road building in the hill and mountain areas have been blatantly ignored. Firstly, the road has to have a drain on the hill slope side so that the water trickling down can be channelled. Secondly, the sinking area requires very careful maintenance and rocks and mud pouring to fill up the sinks must be avoided.

The basics of disasters and their management have to be taught at the village and community levels and also in all the educational institutions.

Universities, with their colleges and other outreach programmes, could in fact be a major bastion for disaster related studies and management.

What role do you envisage for the government, people and private players for effective disaster management?

This disaster has again brought forward the critical issue of connectivity — both physical and virtual — in the Northeast and the mountain areas. This has to be seen in the context of both centre-periphery disconnects and deprivations, say between Delhi and Meghalaya, and also in the larger context of national security needs. This region provides comprehensive security to the nation. However, the blatant lack of political sagacity, absence of bureaucratic resurgence and the feebleness of the civil society to do something substantive and leap-frogging for this region has eaten into the vitals of this so-called Indian periphery.

We are not only ill-prepared but also myopic in our thought process. One accident or a small landslip could dislocate the entire national highway for hours and sometimes days together. Disasters only shake us and do not wake us up.

For us in this region, BSNL is another white elephant. It just does not want to move an inch from its routine activity and tunnel-like thinking. The role of private players in the aftermath of the earthquake needs to be thoroughly inquired. The communications stopped working when you needed it most. We need to really delve into their social responsibilities and make them sensitive and robust to cope with unforeseen calamities.

Popular perception is that the multiple dams on the Teesta have adversely affected the fragile ecology of Sikkim and induced seismicity.

Energy is required for national and local development. For that, a potential renewable source is the unharnessed rivers flowing in the mountain areas. If done properly it can transform the entire development dynamics in the region. Bhutan is a good example.

People are not against the hydel power projects as such. They are against the way these projects are done, the casualness with which the environmental impact assessment is conducted and clearances are given and the way project developers are selected. The location, size and scale of these projects, the knowledge and experience of these project developers, the capability of project regulating agencies and the way projects have been designed and the technology used have been questioned all across the fragile Himalayan ecology. Unfortunately, in many cases these issues come up for public discussion only in the aftermath of disasters.

What are the short-term and long-term impacts of the disaster on Sikkim's economy and growth prospects and what needs to be done now?

The short-term impacts are, of course, the scar on ordinary people's psychology about the fear of recurrence; the time and resources taken to rebuild the devastated areas; disruption in the flows of tourists and other productive activities; and the disengagement of governmental machineries from their regular delivery systems and governance. The long-term impacts are more in the form of formidable challenges in terms of material and service demands on the State and the government; reorienting the development strategies; refurbishing and implementing the building regulations and proper urban planning; checking on the quality of construction works; integrating the system with agencies like BRO and GREF and several other central agencies like the Geological Survey of India.