- Unchecked urbanisation, livelihood vulnerability, and declining ecosystems along with changing weather patterns are exacerbating the frequency of landslides in the Darjeeling district in north West Bengal.
- Interviews with community members revealed that their awareness of landslide causes was at par with that of domain experts but there was a clear lack of ownership in the residents for their own actions, writes the author of this commentary.
- The failure of local and state government in incorporating community-based decisions/opinions will lead residents to continue risk creation activities and cause irreversible environmental degradation.
- The views expressed in this commentary are that of the author.
Disasters today are no more natural – with climate change knocking at our doors reminding us of our disrespectful actions towards nature, we are left to wonder which extreme event lies tomorrow. Landslides in the Darjeeling Himalayas of India are no exception to this: increased rainfall intensity influenced by global climate change, anthropogenic activities like illegal mining, unplanned construction of various infrastructures, deforestation are exacerbating the number of these events occurring on the hilly terrains. The quaint villages of Darjeeling Himalayas, previously well-known for their tea cultivation, have also been gaining more attention currently due to the increasing number of landslides every monsoon.
Community and academic knowledge on Darjeeling disasters
Although landslides have been observed in this part of the Himalayas since 1899, local communities believe that since the 1970s, with every year’s monsoon, the frequency of these landslides is multiplying, attributed to the nexus between the changing weather, construction lobbyists, ineffective disaster risk reduction and urban planning by the state government and necessitous villagers.
Menuka, a native of Darjeeling for 79 years, compared the current situation in Darjeeling with her past. She describes that back in the 1960s, there were small but well-maintained roads surrounded by plenty of trees and strict building regulations. She, then, goes on to narrate how every road started deteriorating since the 1970s following the advent of construction ‘raj’, and how village communities are now building houses without permission, leading to numerous informal settlements since the 1990s.
The construction lobbyists, today, develop 10-storeyed buildings on the slopes and near the roads, while only a maximum of four storeys should have been approved, said another resident. He adds that the rainfall patterns have also changed from high intensity, short-duration rainfall to low intensity, long duration patterns in the monsoons followed by low or no snowfall during winters. Dumping garbage on roadside drains, blocking channels that are supposed to carry the excess water, illegally mining out coal from the already susceptible slopes, and developing unplanned houses on otherwise stable slopes were said to be a part of the day-to-day life for a large population in Darjeeling.
So, one can definitely see all the ‘risk drivers’ responsible for exacerbating global, national, and local impacts of disasters — increasing urbanisation, poor urban governance, vulnerable rural livelihoods and the decline of ecosystems— in UNDRR’s Global assessment report on disaster risk reduction of 2009 applicable in Darjeeling even after 12 years.
Fundamentally, these causes are in line even with those identified since the beginning of the 20th century as corroborated in this 2006 study. But what can the stakeholders-in-question — domain experts, local community, local and national governments, NGOs — do to reduce the disaster risk? Academics and international organisations suggest that in such cases, increasing awareness through training sessions is the required step. But will this really help?
In interviews to determine the understanding of Darjeeling residents of the causes of recurring landslide events in their region, the residents listed three triggers (earthquake, rainfall, and construction) and 12 human activities influencing the occurrence of landslides in the hills. There was a striking similarity of this list with those identified by experts in previous studies; thus, clearly displaying the fact that the awareness of local people is not the issue behind their inaction towards disaster risk reduction. So, what is the challenge?
Disaster risk reduction initiatives can only be successful once risk creation stops
During the interviews, it was defeating to find that nine out of ten vulnerable residents were uninterested to undertake disaster risk reduction initiatives because of their priority to earn more for their next generation and bring food to the table. Srilata (name changed for anonymity), a tea plantation worker in Darjeeling for the past 15 years was seen throwing garbage into the drain near her house. On being questioned, she said she did not want to walk down the slope and back, spending 20-25 minutes to go to the nearest garbage dump. Although she knew her actions may contribute to land sliding at a later date, she was more focused on saving time in these “petty tasks” to be able to work more hours in the plantation field. Ajay, another resident of Sonada (a village in Darjeeling), was seen adding more storeys to his homestay at the crest of a hill without the municipality’s (local government’s) permission; he believes that the increasing number of tourists in Darjeeling will get him the additional income needed to pay his daughter’s college fees.
Sadly, Darjeeling residents have willingly accepted landslides as fait accompli – given that a landslide is generally small-scale and affecting one or two households; the villagers have a strong feeling that their house would be spared by the boulders just passing their house. The certitude of this sort in the residents illustrates their oddity of living with landslides. In fact, several were reticent to even share their thoughts stemming from their distrust of the local governance and their priority to put food on the table rather than thinking about disaster risks.
A 76-year-old leader of a community talked about the local knowledge passed on through generations and how they were taught to identify when a landslide can strike by looking for cracks in their house or through the creaking noise of the windows. Yet they chose to live in the same house and wait till the landslide actually strikes because they had no other risk-free land available.
The clear lack of ownership for the residents’ actions towards risk creation and the habit of living with disasters, questions the entire idea of ‘increasing awareness’ and taking ‘risk reduction’ initiatives to strengthen risk resilience. Obviously, there is also a gap in clear communication and action between the community and administration within the district adding problems to the entire risk scenario.
But who is to blame finally?
Every interviewee had someone to point fingers at: the village residents blamed the state government for its inability to give appropriate compensation for land loss when small landslides hit; the shop owners blamed those building illegal and unplanned infrastructure on the roads; the construction lobbyists blamed the British who first came to Darjeeling and inhabited the hill; the domain experts blamed the corruption within the central government; the tea plantation workers blamed their local bosses and politicians blame each other.
What can we do?
Although the Darjeeling District Disaster Management Plan of 2020-21 lists several landslide impacts and relief operations, it rarely talks about including the community’s voice in its policy planning. The District Disaster Management team is still focused on informing the community about disaster risk reduction through training and awareness whereas the need of the hour is to increase the ownership of the residents towards their actions. Despite efforts to implement risk reduction strategies and promote hazard awareness in vulnerable areas, failing to include community-based disaster risk reduction (CBDRR) by local and state governments will continue to drive residents towards risk creation activities and beget more environmental degradation to a point from where Darjeeling can never come back. Communities need to be empowered and supported by the government to identify their own actions, prioritise their problems, and produce contextual solutions that work for them.
The author has spent most part of her life in India working on natural hazards assessment and insurance. She is currently a doctoral candidate at King’s College London, working with the SHEAR studentship cohort on quantifying the influences of human activities and other natural hazards on landslides using expert elicitation.
Banner image: Landslide at Nimbong, Kalimpong District, 2019. Photo by Peter McGowran.