Sikkim, INDIA—On the evening of September 18, 2011, Passangkit Lepcha was cooking dinner in her small mud house in the hillside village of Bay when the earth began to shudder.
The shaking went on “for what seemed like an eternity and it was pitch dark outside,” Passangkit said. “There was a loud noise. It was then that I saw the entire mountain above our mud house descending directly upon us.”
Passangkit cried out to her husband and son in the next room telling them to run before the mudslide slammed into her house. “I woke up after some time in pitch darkness amid debris, boulders,” Passangkit said, wiping tears away, “only to see my house, my son and husband buried below a mountain of boulders.” Passangkit used a pseudonym to speak to 100Reporters, saying she feared official retribution.
The 6.9 earthquake that rattled northeast India in 2011 had its epicenter near the border of Nepal and Sikkim, a tiny Himalayan kingdom that was merged into India in 1975. At least sixty-three people died in Sikkim, many in remote villages like Bay in the northern part of the state. Houses were damaged by the quake or washed away by landslides it touched off. Miles of roads became impassable. The state and central government estimated that the quake caused $15 billion in damage to property and infrastructure.
The central government and the state government of Sikkim vowed swift relief and rebuilding. Yet more than two years after the quake, Bay and other communities across Sikkim still wait for the housing, roads and other repairs the government promised.
Facing mounting criticism over the slow pace of reconstruction, the Sikkim government has blamed the Central Government for not providing funds quickly. Yet official records obtained by 100Reporters under India’s Right To Information Act reveal that earthquake reconstruction under Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Chamling has been plagued with delays, improper payments, questionable projects and sweetheart contracts.
- Of the nearly 8,000 homes damaged by the quake, only six were rebuilt in 2012.
- About $1.2 billion dollars in road reconstruction funds went to projects slated for repair or completion before the quake, rather than streets damaged in 2011.
- Major reconstruction contracts were awarded without competitive bidding, to companies that had already been reprimanded by the government for problems with other projects.
“The relief provided is too little, too late,” said Tseten Lepcha, president of the non-partisan Affected Citizens of Teesta, an organization opposed to hydropower projects slated for Sikkim “Money was never the issue. The lack of vision, coordination and will to help those suffering post-earthquake has pushed the people of Sikkim, particularly the poor, against the wall.”
India loses an estimated $16 billion per year due to corruption. “Out of every INR100 meant for infrastructure development, only INR 16 is used and INR 84 is lost in corruption,” retired Indian Police Services officer-turned social activist Kiran Bedi said, speaking before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2013.
According Global Financial Integrity, a U.S.-based nonprofit group, illicit financial flows from India during the sixty-year period spanning its independence in 1947 to 2008 have totaled approximately $640 billion, or about half of India’s official gross domestic product. Of that, $123 billion was lost in the last decade alone, a figure more than 30 times the amount New Delhi spent on social services like healthcare and education in 2012.
The Sikkim government defended its record on earthquake reconstruction, pointing out that the central government had signed off on every phase of the state’s recovery program.
“The prime minister’s package of $10 billion is being monitored by both state and central agencies and all projects and schemes under this are being implemented with the approval of the government of India,” said K. S. Tobgay, Sikkim’s relief commissioner and secretary of land revenue and disaster management.
Of $10 billion earmarked by New Delhi, Sikkim has already gotten $4 billion. But in late December, Chief Minister Chamling conceded his government has spent only $2.27 billion to date.
Reconstruction Gone Awry
Little progress has been made in rebuilding Sikkim’s ruined homes. The quake damaged or destroyed 7,972 rural homes in Sikkim. Yet a year later, only six new earthquake-resistant houses had been completed to replace damaged housing, according to records obtained by 100Reporters.
No homes were built in the North district, which, with nearly 3,000 homes damaged, was the area worst hit by the earthquake. Only one house each was built in the East and West districts. Chamling’s own constituency in the South district fared somewhat better: records show 4 houses were rebuilt there.
Late last year, the Sikkim government provided new estimates that suggested a huge leap in home construction. But the estimates differed substantially from one another and could not be independently verified.
For instance, in October 2013, Tobgay said the state had completed the renovation or reconstruction of 1,000 homes affected by the earthquake. In his December 29 statement, Chamling said that the state had constructed 1,500 earthquake-resistant houses under the project, with the remaining 6,500 to be completed this year. In the official website, the department of rural management that is actually undertaking the reconstruction has stated that 3,000 houses are complete.
“There is a lack of transparency regarding actually how many earthquake damaged houses were reconstructed,” said Dawa Lepcha, a former member of the Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT), currently associated with the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha party. “The land revenue department secretary, the chief minister and the department of rural management that is actually undertaking the reconstruction are coming out with contradictory versions.”
The damage sustained by Sikkim’s infrastructure made repair of roads and bridges, power lines, water supply and health centers the first priority in the rebuilding process.
Yet documents show that the state government diverted $1.2 billion it received for reconstruction of rural roads and bridges to complete urban projects it was working on in 2010, before the earthquake. For instance, the upgrading of Dr. Ambedkar Road in Sikkim’s capital, Gangtok, with a targeted completion date of 2010, was paid for with earthquake relief funds for rural rebuilding, though it is an urban street undamaged by the quake.
Under the disaster management department headed by Chamling, the state also paid to restore a bridge near Paljor stadium in Gangtok for $75,811. There was no bridge, however. Instead, there is only an approach road, part of which had caved in 2005, and repairs to it were carried out before the earthquake. The $75,811 paid for three iron plates to make the road usable.
The government of Sikkim did not answer multiple requests for comment on the infrastructure projects.
No Bid Contracts
The Chamling government awarded major reconstruction contracts without a competitive bidding process and to companies with poor track records, government documents obtained under the Right to Information Act show.
The $1.93 billion reconstruction of the state’s civil secretariat was handed over without any tender process to M/s Engineering (India) Ltd., by the disaster management department run by Chamling. Soon after, the contract was annulled and handed over, again without a tender, to the Kolkata-based M/s Architech Consultant Pvt. Ltd.
Architech received the no-bid tender despite an earlier reprimand by the Secretary to the Governor of Sikkim, for inordinate delays and cost overruns in building the Governor’s residence, budgeted for $120 million. Due to the delays, the project’s cost ran to $390 million.
Despite the company’s poor record, the Sikkim government did not demand guarantees for Architech’s work. For instance, the bond the company had to post, as security against failing to complete the $1.93 billion project, was only $8,065, documents show.
“The awarding of contracts by the government, without bidding, to companies with doubtful credibility reflects a bending of existing norms at will to benefit vested interests,” said Prem Singh Tamang, a former close aide of Chamling and now a leader of the opposition Sikkim Krantikari Morcha party.
The Road Ahead
Even though the government provided some immediate help, full restoration of homes and infrastructure for thousands in Sikkim continues at a brutally slow pace.
The state assembly elections are slated for the first half of 2014, along with the general elections in India. According to Nar Bahadur Bhandari, former Sikkim chief minister and leader of the opposition Sikkim Sangram Parishad, “the delayed and inadequate relief and rehabilitation after the 2011 earthquake and massive graft charges against the government at all levels” have stoked the worst anti-incumbency backlash against Chamling’s Sikkim Democratic Front party since he took office in 1994.
Meanwhile, in remote villages like Bay, residents wait for change. Passangkit now lives in a temporary mud shelter, adjacent to where her home once stood, uncertain of her safety.
Sitting in the shelter, she said, “If another earthquake comes, it’s better to die in my mud house. I have nowhere to go.”