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WOKEN BY TREMOR

Lessons from a quake

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Anti-dam protests have got a new lease of life after last year's quake (bottom left).

Social historians could well divide Sikkim's recent history in two phases: before and after September 18, 2011. The 6. 9 strong earthquake that shook this tiny Himalayan state of 6. 1 lakh-odd people on that day didn't just take more than 80 lives, trigger devastating landslides that wiped away roads, bridges and many hamlets or cause many buildings to collapse. It also set off a re-thinking among people about their lifestyles and, over the past year, has led to consciousness about the environment taking deep roots.

'Going green' is the latest buzz in Sikkim and ecologically-friendly practices like rainwater harvesting, solar power, recycling and reusing materials, conservation and curbing wasteful practices have found wide acceptance. As has awareness of the need to harness earthquake-resistant technology while not only constructing new buildings, but also reinforcing existing ones.

An immediate and welcome fallout of the devastating quake was the debate it generated over and protests against mega hydel power projects. So strong were the protests that the state government scrapped four such projects over the last one year. "It is a victory of 'dharma'. Mega dams cause irreparable damage to the environment and we protested since the dams would block rivers considered sacred by us, " said Pem Tshering Lepcha, the general secretary of the Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee (Siblac) that is spearheading the protests against big dams.

"We know that these dams, many under construction, did not cause the earthquake. But after September 18, even the man on the street or an illiterate villager realised that the scale of the devastation would have been much higher had these dams been ready when the earthquake struck. That's how the anti-dam movement gained widespread support, " says retired bureaucrat T Bhutia.

But much more important than popular protests against big dams is the larger consciousness about the environment and also about disaster management that has dawned on the Sikkimese. "There's a distinct difference in the new building plans for residential and commercial spaces being submitted by people. Everyone is going for stronger earthquake-resistant structures and are more open to suggestions from our engineers to incorporate changes that would make their buildings structurally stronger. Also, instead of making do with unqualified masons as was the practice in the past, people these days want architects and civil engineers to go to the construction sites and supervise the work. This is a very welcome change, " says K K Rai, chief engineer of the state's urban development and housing department that vets all building plans in the state.

B N Chettri, a senior officer in Sikkim's transport department, is not just content with incorporating earthquake resistant technology in the new house he's building for himself at Tadong in state capital Gangtok. "I'm also making provisions for rainwater harvesting and recycling waste water and will install solar panels. The partition walls of my house will be of light materials, " he says.

There are countless others like Chettri. "I think people have become much more aware of the need to conserve what they have and cut down on consumption of, say, power or water. More people are walking as far as possible instead of using their cars. Mindless consumption and ostentation has definitely decreased significantly, " says prominent and respected Gangtok resident Kelsang Gyatso.

It has helped that the Sikkimese, almost overwhelmingly Hindus and Buddhists, are also a deeply religious lot. Senior Buddhist monks, who are also revered by the Hindus, had been in the forefront of making the masses aware of conserving nature. "The earthquake has come to be seen by the masses as divine retribution for rapacious exploitation of the environment and as a dire warning from above to make amends and live in harmony with nature. This consciousness has taken deep roots, especially among the simple village folks who have made significant lifestyle changes, " says Prem Gurung, an environment researcher with Sikkim University.

The state government, too, is chipping in. "We're creating awareness and framing laws that will strictly govern construction of buildings. City development plans are being framed for Gangtok, Namchi and other towns and we'll ensure that all structures in the state are earthquake-resistant. Disaster management plans are in place right down to the village levels and disaster management cells have become fully operational, " says chief minister Pawan Chamling.

An institute to formulate effective disaster management plans after extensive mapping of the entire state and to study climate change in the Himalayas will also come up in Sikkim soon. The Sikkim State Disaster Management Authority is planning to make all village schools earthquake resilient so that they can serve as shelters during natural calamities. "We shall study satellite imagery of the whole state to identify vulnerable areas and shift human habitations from such areas. We're carrying out an extensive and continuous campaign to train people to respond to disasters and disaster management will soon be introduced in the school curriculum, " says a senior bureaucrat who oversees the functioning of this body.

Nearly all villages of the state have formed forest protection committees over the past year. Sikkim's forest and environment minister Bhim Dhungel says that over the past one year, his department has been receiving far more support in its conservation efforts from the people than earlier. "Many environment groups have sprung up and they're also spreading awareness among the rural people, " he says. The department has roped in a local design consultancy firm to add value to minor forest produce in order to improve the earnings of the villagers who collect such produce. "If the villagers earn well from items that can be made from minor forest produce like bamboo, they won't cut down trees, " says Dhungel.

Young Tenzing Nyentsey, a director of Echostream Design Consultancy which is working with the forest department, says such changes, though seemingly small, will go a long way in conserving nature and bringing about a green way of life. Nyentsey's office in Gangtok is an illustrative example in use of recycled and local materials to create attractive and eco-friendly work or living spaces.

Happily, many Sikkimese are taking this path. "We realise that earthquakes cannot be prevented. But if we take corrective measures now, the damage by a future earthquake can be minimised, " says Chetan Raj Shrestha, a young architect who has been advocating eco-friendly architectural designs.

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