Sikkim floods: Legislators raise concern in Assembly on future of Teesta basin
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Gangtok: The Sikkim Legislative Assembly session on Thursday began with condolence messages from legislators from affected constituencies of Sikkim. 

The three constituencies of Mangan-Lachen, Dzongu, and Kabi Lungchok in the Mangan district were the most damaged, while West Pendam saw the most casualties in the October 3 Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF). 

Urban Development Minister LB Das, who represents West Pendam constituency housing the town of Rangpo, highlighted how over 1500 houses have been damaged between Golitar near Singtam to Rangpo, a stretch of 10-12 kilometres in NH 10. In his condolence message in the Assembly, Das stated, “The government should examine if the Teesta and Rangit riverine areas in Sikkim are safe for human settlements or go to the extent of declaring it as “no construction zone.” 

Pointing to the dangers for areas with sizable settlements or functioning as bazaars, Das said, “We have seen the wrathful look of Teesta River, and I feel that river training or protective works cannot withstand it. Besides multiple casualties, hundreds were displaced after their houses were fully or partially submerged by the flood water and slush.”

The minister said warnings and alerts had been promptly sounded around 1 a.m. on October 4 by the police and local administration in the low-lying areas of his constituency. “Police gave a timely warning through microphones and messages that led to the safe evacuation of the people. If it was not done timely, the casualties from our constituency would be around 3,000-4,000 but minimum casualty took place,” said West Pendam MLA. 

Das shared that during the relief and restoration works in Rangpo, it was found that around 24 buildings were constructed above the drains in violation of government rules. 

Similarly, Forest Minister Karma Loday Bhutia observed that going forward, we should avoid the construction of residential buildings and industries in the low-lying areas close to the Teesta and Rangit rivers. The Kabi Lungchok MLA, who has already recorded a statement against the reconstruction of a dam in Chungthang last month, asked, “Whose fault was it to allow construction of residential buildings and pharma factories along the river banks? Does it have to be our government to correct the past mistakes?” 

Bhutia spoke about certain illegal constructions on the river beds, for which the Forest Department has already initiated action. 

Dzongu MLA Pintso Namgyal Lepcha has observed that most people did not take the Teesta River overflowing warning seriously on that fateful night as they were habituated to such alerts over the years.

For years, the glacial lake outburst warning had been given but people over the years have become accustomed to such alerts and when the alert had been given that night, many considered it as a routine matter and believed that it (flood) wouldn’t happen, said Pintso Namgyal.

The low-lying areas of Dzongu also suffered a loss of life and property during the Teesta River flash flood. The two main bridges connecting Dzongu to the rest of Sikkim were also washed away at Phidang and Sangakhalang.

Bharatiya Janata Party’s Sikkim President Dilli Ram Thapa representing the unaffected Upper Burtuk constituency strongly condemned the government for its failure to declare the October 3 disaster as either a ‘natural disaster or mistake’. In his condolence message, he shared, “The souls of the 42 lives lost in the October 3 GLOF would not find peace until it was determined if their deaths were the result of natural disaster, institutional lapses or mistakes by the elected representatives. The government itself is not clear if the flash flood was triggered by a cloud burst or South Lhonak glacial lake outburst, neither is the government able to determine the timing of first information received from South Lhonak Lake.”

Thapa highlighted how the state government has been aware of the GLOF threat since 2001 from multiple agencies with even the Supreme Court of India directing the installations of early warning systems for hydroelectric plants. 

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He said, “We had 22 years to work on GLOF management but all we did was to install 2-4 pipes to drain the lake water from South Lhonak. There has been a huge mistake from us the leaders, it is now time to act responsibly as there are many more glacial lakes under threat in Sikkim.”

Thapa suggested a joint delegation of legislators led by the Chief Minister to make representation to the Prime Minister of India and the Home Minister in Delhi for allocation of more funds, highlighting the huge economic loss to the State in the aftermath of the October 3 GLOF.

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