The landslide that occurred on the intervening night of June 29-30, 2022 at the Railway Construction camp site at Marangching, Noney district in Manipur was unprecedented and is one of the severest natural calamities that hit Manipur. In a natural calamity, the number of casualties is difficult to assess and in most of the cases, the number keeps on increasing. However, in the instant case, though initially, the number was indicated to be 81, later corrected as 80, and finally as 79.
On July 4, 18 persons including 13 Territorial Army (TA) personnel and five civilians from Venkata Sai Construction (VSC) were rescued alive while the rest have unfortunately died in the tragedy, as bodies are recovered steadily but slowly and the chances of survival is nil.
With the passage of time, the bodies have become bloated and even identification is becoming difficult, and perhaps DNA testing may have to be resorted to ensure that the correct bodies are sent to the families.
As per an official report, the victims include 43 personnel of 107 TA (B Coy, 22 of VSC, three from railways, three from Bharti Infra Private Limited (BIPL), one from NIPL Infra Projects, five villagers and another two were civilians engaged by TA and BIPL. Another report indicates that the number is four for BIPL and three from others.
Till the time of writing this piece, 47 mortal remains have been recovered; 28 from TA, 11 from VSC, two from railways though one is yet to be fully verified, three from BIPL, one from NIPL Infra Projects, and two from those engaged by TA and BIPL.
Unfortunately, none of the bodies of the five villagers could as yet been recovered and a total of 14 are still missing which include two from TA, six from VSC, and one from Railways besides the villagers.
The recovery of the mortal remains is slow due to not only the difficult and risky terrain but the area to be searched is very large though focus is reportedly made on specific locations. The volume of debris to be shifted is monumental and despite using a large number of heavy equipment, it is no easy task.
The response of the state government cannot be faulted and it did whatever was possible at the juncture by rushing in NDRF and SDRF teams for search and rescue operation and it must be complimented.
The Indian Army, Assam Rifles, state police, Fire Service, MMTA and local volunteers also participated in the search operation and all of them deserve commendation for the hard, difficult and risky undertaking.
A team from the Red Cross with a fully equipped ambulance went on the first day but with the chances of survival receding, returned as they are not properly equipped and trained to join the search.
The CM of Manipur went to the site on the first two days, indicating the seriousness he took on the search and rescue operations.
The stationing of the Minister in charge of Relief & Disaster Management at the site indicates the seriousness of the government in the search operation.
Many individuals and NGOs had contributed materials for the search teams and they need to be thanked but there is a feeling that quite a few are not that serious and try to be in the limelight through Youtube uploads, forgetting that what we are witnessing is a tragedy of immense dimension and is no time for personal publicity.
Leaders visiting the site put strain on the resources of the local administration and rather than focussing on the search operation, manpower had to be diverted to look after the VVIPs.
All materials must not be allowed to be distributed by the visiting individuals but should be handed over to the officer designated by the DC.
People not connected with the search operation should be barred from entering the slide zone which should be open to only trained personnel to avoid any incident.
Fortunately, there is as yet no harm to any member of the search teams or visitors but it is always better to take precaution.
In the Red Cross, the principle of aiding a casualty is “Safety First” that is first see the safety of the aider so that the number of casualties is not increased; in other words aiders should not become casualty.
The Army had brought in sniffer dogs and through wall imaging radar to aid the search and on this one felt that if the proposal for purchase of a sensitive Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) for archaeological investigation for which fund was provided in 2016-17 but was reportedly subsequently diverted for civil works went through, it could have aided the search as there are reports of such GPR being used in detecting bodies buried underground in various natural and manmade calamities across the globe.
There are conflicting reports some claiming the slide is 2 km wide while some say it is 1 km and even if it is 1 km, the search area is too wide and it will take a long time to cover all and there is an inkling on one’s mind that perhaps all the bodies could not be recovered.
The steps taken to remove the debris on the Ijai River which blocked the flow of water is a very positive step to avoid subsequent tragedy downstream but the channel cut is still too small and steps need to be been taken to enlarge it to drain out the collected water as there is chances of bodies reaching this zone.
It is, however, hoped that all the bodies are detected and recovered so that the families at least have the comfort of their near and dear ones being properly cremated or interred.
The assurance of the district deputy commissioners that efforts will continue till all the bodies are recovered is indeed heart-warming.
The chief minister had indicated that this is the greatest tragedy after the 1819-1825 Chahi Taret Khunthakpa, indicating the severity of the tragedy.
However, it is not comparable between man-made and natural disasters.
The number of death in this disaster is the highest among natural disasters in memory in the state and even the casualty in Manipur in the 1950 earthquake which devastated Assam, was minimal perhaps as there was no concrete structures then and if earthquake of the intensity of above 8 in the Richter scale visits Manipur now, the casualty will be in thousands.
In history, there are man-made incidents where more lives were lost such as the Khongjom Lan of 1891, Kuki rebellion of 1917-1919, Naga-Kuki conflict of 1992, etc to name a few.
There was a video clip early where one local was blaming the Railways for the tragedy, claiming that it has not done this and that. A very unfortunate finger pointing at this juncture where all focus should be to detect and bring back the mortal remains of those who had died to their families.
No agencies will put their own staff to risk, and the casualty includes those of railways and if it had even an inkling of a disaster of such magnitude likely to happen they would not have set camp in the particular site.
Yes, after the search operation is over, a proper enquiry needs to be conducted to determine the cause of the slide to ensure that such tragedies do not recur again in the future. If we fail to learn from history, then we are nothing but donkeys, but there is also a saying that the only thing that history teaches is man never learns from history.
It is, however, hoped that an enquiry is conducted with competent persons in the team to ensure that such a tragedy does not happen again and what steps need to be taken to avoid such incidents.
Nature is powerful and unpredictable and our knowledge of it is still very limited and nature has a habit of hitting back when it is disturbed. Perhaps, the major disturbance in nature in building the long rail line and related appurtenances had pre-disposed the area to land or mud slide after a heavy shower. That can only be verified by experts through a proper scientific investigation.
At this juncture, it may not be appropriate to conjecture on the causes, except that generally mud or land slide is due to disturbance in the natural stability of a slope which can be due to various factors such as degree of slope, the geological make up, precipitation, anthropogenic intervention, earthquake, etc and till a scientific investigation is carried out it the exact cause cannot be said.
It is time to wish speedy recovery to those who were injured and offer our deepest condolences to the families of those who departed in this disaster.
The state needs to perhaps prepare better for search and rescue operations with modern imaging equipment for the future. Perhaps, a befitting monument is erected in the memory of those who perished in this tragic incident, with their names engraved.
(The views expressed are personal)