Wednesday, July 29, 2020
Highlighting the forgotten plight of the people of Rabek and Ladam, Kalimpong District: Peter McGowran, King's College London (UK)
Over the past few months, I’ve spent a lot of time going through the various notes, photos and interviews that constitute my fieldwork data. This led me back to the field visit my research assistant Lochan and I took on 21/11/19 to the very remote landslide-affected villages of Rabek and Ladam, near Rishap in Kalimpong’s Algarah Block. Since the day we visited, I’ve felt a need to highlight the seemingly forgotten plight of the people of Rabek and Ladam. It is for others to decide what should be done to help the people there.
Rabek and Ladam:
Figure 1 – The location of the landslide in Ladam/Rabekin Kalimpong District.
Lochan and I visited Ladam and Rabek on 21/11/19. We found about it through the Kalimpong District Disaster Management Plan and contacted our interviewees by speaking to people when we arrived, as they gave us phone numbers. The area is around a two-hour drive from Kalimpong Town, followed by about a two-hour walk down the hillslope to reach the villages of Ladam and Rabek. It would have taken perhaps another hour to reach the lowest houses in the village, but we didn’t have the time or energy to do that!In the village itself we interviewed one of the leaders of the affected community. From there, we climbed back up to the top of the hill and then visited the camp where most of the displaced currently live. We spoke to few of them there in a sort of open discussion, led primarily by one member.It isn’t the easiest landslide to photograph because it is an entire hillslope. In the below picture, one of the lowest houses in the village can be seen, to give some sense of the scale of the affected area.
Figure 2 – Part of the hillslope in Ladam/Rabek. The entire hillslope pictured is affected.
From the 29th of June to around the 1st of July, there was extremely heavy rainfall in and around Kalimpong district. This triggered a number of landslides across the district and region, many of which were fatal – see here for Save The Hill’s coverage of the many other landslides that took place over those few days in 2015. Whilst there were no casualties in Rabek and Ladam, the landslides have caused immense suffering for the people living there. At the time, this was picked up by some local media outlets and we were toldthat many local politicians visited the area. There are three other sources of information I have found on this situation, though there may be more in Nepali news sources:
1. Video news report by local news outlet KTV
2. Facebook post from a local Facebook group (with photos)
3. Facebook post from a local NGO
Whilst the exact chronology of events in 2015 is not clear, what we do know is that the entire hillslope was sliding down at some point during this event, and that there were a number of small mud-flows, debris falls and other landslide-related phenomena occurring all over the area on the night of the 29th of June, 2015. Photographs of the aftermath can be seen here.
Whilst I have no geological or hard data to draw upon, it seems this entire hillslope has been unstable for decades, one interviewee said this is perhaps a legacy of the 1968 rainfall event in the Darjeeling and Kalimpong Himalaya. A few years ago in 2011, the Sikkim Earthquake seemingly unsettled the entire hillslope which Rabek and Ladam sit on, and a number of cracks and crevices appeared. Our interviewee said there had been a survey done by ‘some official with some machine’ shortly afterwards. It appears this survey didn’t materialise into any actions, but they did find the cracks and crevices underground. The interviewee also reported that the people here were quite used to small landslips happening in and around the area. As a result, they had an early-warning system of sorts within the grassroots community group known as ‘the samaj’, which most communities have in The Hills. The samajserves different purposes in each community it represents, including support during times of crisis, providing ‘rules’ of sort for the conduct of the community, or as a basis for community organisation as and when required. In Rabek and Ladam, if there is prolonged rainfall, samajmembers go around the village and tell people to leave their homes and take shelter in safer areas until the rain subsides. Our interviewee suggested that without this system, lives probably would have been lost in 2015.
Despite the fact there were no casualties, we were told around 44 households were displaced initially. Some of these houses were completely destroyed, some partially damaged and other households chose to stay elsewhere in the immediate aftermath for fear of further landslides. One of the main impacts has been the fact that the landslide has destroyed lots of agricultural land, changed water courses and sources, and rendered the hillslope largely unsafe for habitation. Our interviewee told us that survey by the Krishi Kalyan Samiti (KKS), a farmer’s welfare cooperative that works all over The Hills, confirmed that this area was unsafe for habitation.Photographs of the relief camp and some can be seen in the Facebook post linked above. There is also more information on the immediate aftermath in the news report linked above.
After the landslide, many of the people of Rabek and Ladamfaced homelessness. According to our interviewee, 20 households received an amount of 1 lakh rupees each from both the District Administration and the GTA. They also received immediate relief supplies and rations after a number of days. I would assume these relief materials also included the relief camp shelters. After weeks of living in temporary shelters, local politicians such as Bimal Gurung and Harka Bahadur Chettri—who in 2015 wielded some considerable power locally through the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA)—were able to negotiate with the Forest Department to allow the affected residents to set-up camp in some nearby forest land which they had previously used as a cattle-grazing area. As far as we can surmise, both the use of the area for cattle grazing and the agreement for (re)settlementwere done on the basis of verbal agreements, with the lattersupposed tolead to a more permanent settlement at some unspecified point in time in the future.This leads me on to the major problem that remains:5 years later, 19 of the families are still living there.
What’s happening now?
Politics moves quickly in The Hills. The politicians who secured the verbal agreement for the resettlement of the people of Rabek and Ladam no longer have any real power, and the verbal agreement has pushed the people of Rabek and Ladam into a marginal existence, somewhere between their old land which is unsafe and no longer productive, and a political and administrative black hole that seems incapable of resolving this problem.I have listed some of the key issues below:
· The land which these people own and used to live on is unsafe.They can no longer reside there. The panchayat cannot build on this land because it is deemed unsafe for habitation following the survey by KKS. Besides, the amount provided for reconstruction is probably insufficient for the cost of building homes in The Hills, especially in remote locations such as these.
· The land they own is now totally unproductive. These people used to be successful land-owning farmers who lived off their land. They have now lost these livelihoods. To get by, most of those who are able work as daily-wage labourers, primarily in the numerous homestays which have appeared there recently. Some reported that this amounts to around a 90% loss of annual income. This means they are unlikely to be able to relocate by their own means.
· The panchayat system is unable to help them because they are on forest land. Those affected told us they hadn’t been offered any other alternative land.
· They are not able to legally build the infrastructure which would allow them to ‘permanently’/comfortably settle here. In India, Forest Reserved Land is not available for human habitation – or any other human activity of note. Only in the last year or so—after four years—have they managed to negotiate facilities such as toilet buildings, electricity, and an internet connection. There are many young children living here. The only way you can get permission to settle on forest land is by acquiring a ‘No Objections Certificate’ (NOC) from the Forest Department, but this must be approved at a state or national level. There are stories locally of these NOCs taking decades to get approval.One of the interviewees said: ‘we are sandwiched’.
It was not the fault of anyone that their homes became unsafe and that the productivity of their land is gone. This was a natural hazard. However, the situation that they now find themselves in is not natural but the result of numerous social, political and economic factors that have created conditions of vulnerability. The outcome of this combination: of the hazard and the vulnerable conditions, has been a long, drawn out disasterthrough which these people have suffered. This event has knock-on effects and may make these people more vulnerable to other hazards such as COVID-19, and the impacts this has already had on rural food security in The Hills.
What can be done to reduce the vulnerability of the residents affected by the landslides in Ladam and Rabek?
Written by Peter McGowran, with thanks to Lochan Gurung and Praful Rao.