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Nightmare at Nathula

Avalanches, flash floods and landslides are pretty common in Indian Himalayan region. Especially during summer and monsoon times.

Search and rescue operations at Gangtok, Sikkim. Image - Twitter/@IndraHangSubba1

What began as a fun filled, day of adventure for hundreds of tourist in East Sikkim, turned out to be nightmare, when an Avalanche hit 15th Mile, Jawaharlal Nehru Road, connecting Gangtok with Nathula Pass on 4th April, 2023. The fateful event has claimed seven lives so far – four men, two women, a six year old and has left several injured and trapped in layers of snow. While natural disasters such as this, are totally unpredictable, the time and place of the incident happens to be an enigma to many.

“Changu / Tsongu Lake - Nathula is not an avalanche prone region. This region has been open to tourists for years and never before has something like this happened in 13th mile, which is substantially at a low altitude. Our first priority is saving as many lives as possible” said Sikkim Police Special DGP Akshay Sachdeva.

The route from Gangtok, East Sikkim that connects Nathula Pass is an international border  between India and China and a much sought after tourist destination. Thousands of people have frequented this place during different seasons for varying reasons-- it is spiritual for those who believe in the Mt .Kailash Mansarovar trail that furthers beyond Nathula to Mt. Kailash in China, an adventurous trek for bikers, and an exotic picnic spot for families and friends to enjoy snow during its season.

Permit Pass

Sonam Tenzing Bhutia, Inspector General for Check post maintains “Passes are issued for only 13th mile, but tourists are forcefully going to 15th mile. The incident happened in 15th mile.”

Access to this route is strictly managed and one needs to secure a pass to venture ahead. A pass issued by the tourism department upon verifying national identity of a person, would be cross checked at the check post by BRO and Army officials. And generally, when the weather is not feasible, “passes are denied”.  Passes are sometime issued with restrictions advising tourists not to go beyond the access point.

Close to 500 vehicles passes had been issued that tragic Tuesday, permitting them access till 13th Mile, however some determined tourists had sought a way around the legal permit to venture ahead to 15th Mile. According to an eyewitness, few minutes before the avalanche hit, they were found playing in snow, taking pictures and climbing hills like a normal tourist would do any other day. And out of the blue, an avalanche snowballed onto them around 11.10 am gliding the stranded people into deeper valleys.

Rescue Mission

Rescue operations were in full swing comprising of officials from Indian Army, Border Roads Organisation, State Disaster Management Authority, Sikkim Police, Sikkim Tourism Department and local travel and drivers association.

20 victims were rushed to STNM - the only state hospital in Gangtok, were seven succumbed to injuries and others were treated, when the CM, P.S. Golay visited them on Tuesday night. In his address he announced that ‘All possible help will be given to the avalanche victims’ and expressed his condolences to the bereaved families.

Even when the rescue operation was on, another minor snow slide occurred around 5.35pm pausing the search process which resumed the following morning. The officials declared that they have brought back close to 350 stranded tourists back to Gangtok post the traumatic episode.

Medical Inadequacy

The victims were rushed to a military medical facility nearby, and were then transported to STNM hospital in Gangtok for treatment. The government doctors were on their toes to attend the call of duty, however a major question that lurks in the minds of many - Does Sikkim have adequate medical facility to treat multiple casualties such as this? A State whose primary resource is depended on tourism, hosting thousands of tourists all around the year, let us not forget the recent G-20 Summit that was hosted here recently, has one State government hospital and another private teaching hospital.

Medical facility in the state is still sadly not up to mark in Sikkim says a senior resident who did not wish to disclose his name. “It is good for basic diagnosis but for special treatments, patients are often taken to Siliguri, West Bengal, New Delhi or even Chennai, Incidents such as these, should alert the authorities to invest in adequate medical facility in a region, which is flooded with tourists round the year.” he added.

Eco Alert

There is much more to the snowcapped mountains and scenic beauty that the travel catalogues entice people with. Coupled with ‘high risk’ behaviour of certain people who want to freeze the moment on Instagram and other social media sites not realising that venturing into a restricted zone, could actually make them stare at death, like the Sikkim Avalanche.

Avalanches, flash floods and landslides are pretty common in Indian Himalayan region. Especially during summer and monsoon times, the melting snow with heavy showers make it difficult for the locals and tourists alike to ascend the hills, washing away roads, rolling down of rocks blocking the path and so on.

A scientific study in the US proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2018, had predicted that the Indian Himalayan region is prone to avalanches due to global warming and climate change. The Uttarakhand Avalanche 2022, killed 23 mountaineers, a decade before that an Himalayan Tsunami wiped close to 6000 people off the hills.

Incidents such as these brings us to the fundamental question - are we tilling and drilling the mountains in the name of development ? Is the alarming rate of footfalls causing more damage to the mountain regions?

 Dr. Archana Arul is an Associate Professor of English at SRM University, Sikkim with a passionate interest in Nature, Arts and the Environment. Views expressed are personal