Devi, 25, is distraught. The earthquake of 18 September in North Sikkim is taking its toll. Her husband, who works for the GREF is nowhere to be heard of. He was last seen heading down towards Chungthang along with his work party. There is no phone in the area. The closest and only one is a satellite phone manned by the ITBP, 5 km away, across a land-slide prone remnant of a road. The quake has left her already rickety house in shambles. There is no place to store food. Ironic, as the only road leading up to this area is blocked and there is no way for rations to reach the shops.
This is the case all over in North Sikkim, a place where a persons’ status is still measured in the number of yaks he owns. Where houses are constructed with yak dung and mud. Mobiles are not heard of here; there is no network coverage. Communication with the world outside is only when tourists visit and stop to take pictures of wooden houses and pagodas, or visit Lake Gurudongmar. There are only two television sets in this village of a population of about a thousand. There’s a collective sigh when one of them mentions having heard the villages’ name on the news. Perhaps there’s still hope, they think that the rest of India knows they exist.
The damage is hardly visible here. A few cracks here and there, some leaks. All easily repairable; in due time. The real story begins inside with men mourning the loss of yaks, their only source of livelihood. Falling rocks have crushed in the skulls of three as they stood tethered outside their homes. Others have been swept away by the flowing mud or scared away. The continuous rains make it impossible for the families to dispose of the bodies. All construction work in the area has stopped. All equipment diverted to clearing roads. The men have no work to do. No way to earn their bread. Prema is here all the way from Nepal for the working season. The tin-sheet-house he shares with 6 other men and women has already run out of food. He has no clue what to do and spends his time foraging the mountains for edible roots and shrubs. Here, at 14,000 feet, vegetation is scarce and the task dangerous. Without trees to anchor the soil, every slope is a potential deathtrap.
The Army is helping out as best as it can. Temporary shelters and hot meals are being provided. Food, though, is turning out to be a dwindling resource. With roads cut off for 50-odd kilometers, there is no supply. Helicopters seem to be the only way to replenish this area. The helipad is teeming with collection parties every day, but the inclement weather and near-zero visibility is preventing any flights from being conducted north of Lachen. The ITBP is doing its bit too. Their sat phone is being used 24 hours. For the plethora of the Army personnel scattered here as well as the civilians, this is the only link with home. Most are rewarded with a couple of minutes of talk with loved ones back home, some turn back disappointed as the sat. phone does not connect with certain numbers.
Television news loop clips of Govt personnel visiting the injured in Gangtok and Rangpo, the most accessible and fastest addressed places. The people wonder if anyone will glance in their direction, whether there will be any help forthcoming from their State Govt. They pray fervently for the Gods to deliver them from this disaster. A fresh bevy of prayer flags are placed all over the mountain sides to appease the Gods and prevent a land-slide from sweeping away their homes next.
Any kind of deliverance, they still look towards the sky, be it helicopters bearing food and supplies or divine intervention.
– Authored by Saurabh Salunke