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State of Sikkim in India struggling after earthquake

Blocked roads and bad weather are hampering rescue and recovery work in the remote Indian state of Sikkim, after an earthquake hit the region on Sunday.

The quake measured 6.9 on the Richter scale and its force buckled roads and tore down houses. Over 90 people are currently reported dead by the Indian government, with China saying 7 people had been killed in Tibet. Another 11 died in Nepal, including two men and a child who were crushed when the wall of the British embassy toppled in the capital, Kathmandu. Though 6,000 Indian troops have been sent to Sikkim to help in the rescue work, they are struggling to reach many remote cut-off villages. The death toll is therefore likely to climb much higher when workers manage to reach isolated communities.

Sikkim is a mountainous region on the border with Bhutan, Tibet, China and Nepal. Sparsely populated, with fewer than 600,000 inhabitants, this Buddhist region joined India in 1975. The area gains much of its revenue from tourism, with visitors attracted by its Buddhist monasteries and scenic trekking. The world’s third highest mountain, Kangchenjunga (meaning ‘Five Treasures of Snow’ because of its five summits), lies along the border with Nepal. 

Now the region’s remoteness is making it hard for Indian rescue workers to find victims and survivors. Many roads are blocked and helicopters are only able to operate when there is a break in the weather. A few rescuers have been flown into Mangan, a small town in the mountains which was near the epicentre of the quake. The army was also able to drop supplies of food and airlift a team of medical personal into the north of the state.

A BBC reporter managed to reach the town of Chunthang, on the border with Tibet, where locals were yesterday receiving the first emergency supplies of food and medicine. Though their distress was clear, people were forming orderly queues to receive help. They also expressed their relief at the arrival of rescuers. One villager told the BBC “it felt as if we had been left to cope with this tragedy by ourselves”.

The Chief Secretary of Sikkim estimated that over 100,000 homes across the state had been damaged. He said that 2,500 relief camps were being set up to provide temporary shelter for people. And in the state capital Gangtok, thousands of families slept in the open-air football stadium in case of aftershocks. However, the challenge remains reaching the inner parts of the state, where many people are feared to be trapped. Rescue workers are deploying explosives to clear debris from roads, but progress is expected to be slow. And rescuers may also have to deal with new landslides caused by aftershocks from the earthquake.

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