Emergency Management in the Himalayan Mountain Regions of North East India

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By Benjamin Yellin

In 2011, a 6.9-magnitude earthquake hit villages on the northwestern border of Sikkim, India, triggering massive landslides, demolishing villages, and killing 100 people. The villagers, acting as first responders, utilized their personal tools as well as knowledge of the area during rescue efforts. Despite the massive military presence in the area, it took the central government two days to mobilize rescue efforts in the landslide-affected areas. And once the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) arrived on the scene, they were not trained or prepared for the mountain conditions and were ineffective in the rescue effort.

The State of Sikkim, the northern most state in eastern India, is surrounded by the Himalayan Mountains and consists primarily of remote, inaccessible villages. However, the emergency management issues highlighted by the 2011 earthquake and its aftermath are not limited to the villages; towns and cities in the region are equally ill-prepared. Steep, winding, narrow roads make the towns themselves fairly inaccessible. Infrastructure is not well planned for emergency services: roads are too narrow for one truck to pass and emergency service providers lack even basic resources. In one particularly striking example, the city of Darjeeling in West Bengal took out all of the city’s fire hydrants due to a dwindling water supply, rendering the fire department almost inoperable.

State and District governments of India do have Emergency Management Plans that are based on the Central Government’s Disaster Management Plan. The West Bengal Disaster Management Plan states that it is the responsibility of the district governing body to handle and delegate authority during an emergency situation. However, there is a stark disconnect between what is written into the plans and how implementation plays out on the ground. The Darjeeling District’s disaster management plan, for example, gives little attention to landslides aside from acknowledging that they are a seasonal threat triggered by monsoon rains.

These planning documents also fail to identify responsible parties for carrying out the duties of state-level Emergency Managers to the local first responders. The result is an emergency management system that is hardly up to the task for minor emergencies, let alone major events such as landslides. While there are many contributing factors to this issue, political unrest in the area has resulted in the ineffective implementation of emergency management programs.

While the military has largely been responsible for emergency response in major disaster events, there have been some efforts by local landslide advocates to implement community-based disaster response systems. These efforts have included mass texting for early warnings of major weather events, first aid training, and the collection and distribution of basic rescue equipment to villages. These programs have not been successful due to a variety of factors including insufficient funding and disinterest by the community at large.

The failings of the disaster management systems isolate towns and communities, leaving the people of these areas to fend for themselves in times of need. The topography of the area further cuts off some communities and means that outside help may not be a viable option for any major event. Without an effective local management plan, the devastation in West Bengal and Sikkim is likely to be overwhelming when a major disaster strikes.

Back to Introduction: Studying Landslide Risk in the Darjeeling District, West Bengal, India