By Kunga Tashi & Mridu Rai On 28 June 2020, a flash flood sluiced right through the middle of Passingdong, Upper Dzongu, North Sikkim leading to the wreckage of several properties and impeding connectivity. The flash floods and the subsequent physical damage has been documented in both the state and national media. But, as is the case with most natural disasters, psychological and psychosocial repercussions are hardly ever foregrounded pushing these aspects to the background as concerns about socio-economic devastations take precedence—number of buildings and homes demolished, number of injuries and fatalities, blockage of roads and connectivity. These are all priorities but perhaps considering the effects of emotional distress during such crisis could possibly provide a more exhaustive understanding of the extent of damage caused by any disaster and help create a more inclusive response and preventive measures for the future.
It is impossible to completely experience and express the sentiments of those affected by such tragedies and as we work on this story, we are fully aware of this. After a short visit to Passingdong and after speaking to the residents there, we got a sense that there was a shared feeling of fear, anxiety and a growing apprehension that the worst is not yet over
“At Confluence Collective, we’ve been speaking about the need to create active dialogues on ecological concerns in Sikkim and rethink ideas of modernity and development based solely on ‘concrete’ aspirations.”
The crisis brought on by the flash floods in Dzongu has now obliged us to reflect on these issues through the emotional and psychological experiences of individuals which remains outside the current narratives on development, disasters and displacement in the region.
The looming danger
A quick surveillance carried out by the locals in Passingdong showed that a huge amount of debris is stuck a few miles above the village. Triggered by incessant rains, this debris could flow down anytime. Come evening and most residents start moving to the neighbouring village of Lingthem where they spend the night at their relatives’ or ancestral homes. Those who don’t have families to fall back on have been sheltering at the Primary Healthcare Centre.
“Every morning we return to our homes, some perform prayers, some pack their belongings. And then by evening everyone finishes their dinner quickly and heads uphill to Lingthem,” says Gyatso Lepcha, a resident of Passingdong.”
As if the COVID-19 pandemic had not affected the loss of daily routine, the landslide has further disrupted the functioning of life. The monsoons in Sikkim last from May through September, and it’s not possible to make a proper assessment and clear the debris atop the village until the rains subside. For how long is it viable to continue living in temporary homes and shelters? How does one endure such a tentative way of life? We were also informed that one night the residents had to rush outside when the Mane Lakhgang raised an alarm. The torrential rain that night seemed like it might have triggered another landslide as a loud rumble was heard. It was a false alarm. But the constant state of panic people are living with is well visible here.
A feeling of abandonment
Heavy rains and the ensuing landslides are an annual occurrence in Sikkim. A handful of news reports, the announcement of relief packages, shock and sympathy looking at images of physical disasters—these have become routinised affairs. These temporary responses have become as ‘normal’ a phenomenon as the monsoon rains themselves. But what about those who have to come up against the actual adversity every year? How do they cope with the losses long after the news reports have fizzled out? What is it like living with the knowledge that in a few months you have to go through the same trauma once again?
“It’s not about economic or material relief alone. It’s also about being acknowledged,” says Lepcha. According to him, temporary relief packages are extremely helpful, but most times these are neither distributed evenly nor transparently. The government had decided that relief would be provided not only to the families whose homes were damaged but to every household in the village, but according to the residents of Passingdong, this hasn’t been the case so far. The relief would’ve been a huge help to cover some immediate needs. For many who depended on tourism, like Lepcha for whom it took years to establish his small homestay Mayal Lyang, the pandemic had already affected their finances and the landslide has further compromised their resources. However, relief packages aside, there seems to be a latent feeling that after making headlines for a few days after the disaster has occurred, both the government and the people cease to indulge themselves in the concerns of those affected.
The bamboo bridge over Rongyoung (Kanaka) river at Mantam, Upper Dzongu is a stark reminder of this sentiment. On 13 August 2016, Dzongu witnessed a massive landslide, the debris from which obstructed the flow of Rangyoung, a tributary of Teesta. This resulted in the formation of an artificial lake which was more than 300 feet deep and three kilometres wide, completely subsuming Mantam village and the bridge connecting other villages in Upper Dzongu. Four years hence, a stable connecting route has still not been completed, and the temporary bamboo crossing has now been washed away again this year, cutting off the villages of Tingvong, Kusung and others from the rest of Sikkim.
An uncertain future
The sense of despair is further exacerbated by an unpredictable future. Some government officials have suggested that the entire village of Passingdong might have to be relocated as the area continues to be overwhelmed every monsoon, and most of the residents also concur with this idea as the only lasting solution. It’s hard to imagine the toll it takes on one’s state of mind when you have to abandon your entire life and rebuild as individuals, families and communities elsewhere. Along with the loss of properties and possessions, such experiences can entail a loss of identity for some as well.
According to Lepcha, if relocation is inevitable, then a sustainable model must be implemented to build the new village. He says that in Sikkim the idea of prosperity is mostly defined by possession of concrete structures, but what we have to learn is to let the landscape shape our lifestyle, not the other way around. This is a critical point that Lepcha makes, something that we should all contemplate and have more conversations on. Unplanned and unrestricted concrete constructions—whether in the form of dams, pharmaceutical factories, Smart City projects, hotels and even personal dwellings—do weaken our already fragile land, but this also has far-reaching socio-political, economic and psychological consequences.* While this is beyond the scope of our current story, Confluence Collective will actively work on this issue.
The inconspicuous emotions and state of mind in the aftermath of such disasters are hard to capture in images. In the case of such images, along with the photographer, even the viewer shoulder some responsibilities.
“Drawing from Ariella Azoulay, we call upon the viewers to not only look at these photographs but to “watch” them. By “watching” instead of “looking” Azoulay says our role goes beyond aesthetic appreciation and the act of viewing itself becomes an “obligation to others to struggle against injuries inflicted on those others”.”
Of course, Azoulay writes in the context of citizenship, but this theory also allows us a more honest understanding of the people affected by any disaster, in this case, the residents of Dzongu. These images hope to raise questions that hardly ever find a place in people’s consciousness. What are the psychological and emotional impacts of confronting a natural disaster year in and year out, of internalising the angst of losing families and communities, of being deprived of social and economic resources in an instant, of being suspended from memory until the next big destruction takes place, of having to leave behind your entire life and start from scratch somewhere else? When we spoke to Lepcha over the phone, the one sentence he kept reiterating was, “We feel shattered.” It is important that we recognise and connect with both the physical and emotional distress of those affected by the flash floods in Dzongu so that managing such disasters does not merely include temporary reliefs but leads to a more strategic, integrated and enduring disaster management plans.
Ariella Azoulay (2014). The Civil Contract of Photography. New York: Zone Books. *For anyone interested in the politics of concrete structures in Sikkim, they can read Duncan McDuie-Ra and Mona Chettri’s paper Concreting the frontier: Modernity and its entanglements in Sikkim, India here.