The recent floods in Manipur left several of its towns and districts devastated. Few of them even required urgent attention and were completely disconnected. One such district was Chandel. It needed serious help. Shangnaidar Tontang upsurged to help and led the disaster management efforts.
Floundering rains, massive landslides, road cave-ins, collapsing homes and bridges, viciously destroyed Chandel district. It has taken months for the families living there to get back to some guise of a normal life. If it wasn’t for the efforts of Shangnaidar Tontang, the affected lives and communities wouldn’t have been able to get through this difficult time.
Shangnaidar Tontang runs an NGO called as Weaker Sections Development Council (WSDC). She had already been working at the grassroots level with the livelihood issues of the people in her area. Her work focused primarily on women empowerment and initiatives towards their development. But when the disaster struck, she along with her colleagues decided to work for the relief and rehabilitation.
Living amidst the disaster affected families, and seeking for solutions in either emergency response or rehabilitation, has been a huge learning lesson for Shangnaidar Tontang and has enabled her to make a difference. Around 163 villages in the district were severely affected by the flash-floods and the subsequent landslides. According to Shangnaidar , this area was already one of the most backward in the region for many decades.
“From the late 1980s and early 1990s, conflict and violence has become a part of everyday life here. This was the site of one of the worst ethnic clashes between the Kukis and Nagas, and people haven’t really been able to regain a full sense of normalcy since then. Moreover, as it’s a border district, clashes between the army and the insurgents is another regular feature. There are frequent combing operations carried out as well. All this has, unfortunately, ensured that communities are unable to get back on their feet and move forward. There is also a sense of fear among the locals and the disaster seemed to be the last straw. Everything simply came to a standstill,” Shangnaidar shares.
“Without food, drinking water or medical care, and worst of all, no means to get in touch with each other, things were on a downward spiral. I clearly remember the shock I felt when I heard the news of a nine-member family being buried alive in the landslide at Joumuol village where the disaster claimed 21 lives. Those were some really difficult days that have stretched into months now,” Shangnaidar Tontang says, with clouding pain.
They started off by surveying the area on foot as the roads were disrupted. Even when she and her team were out in the fields, the rains hadn’t ceased. This made their work and travelling long distances difficult. Their investigation gave them a clarity about the widespread destruction. They realised that without heavy machinery, its impossible to clear the large debris.
“Nonetheless, we knew we couldn’t just keep waiting around for relief to come from outside. There was an urgent need for food and other supplies and nothing would reach the people if the pathways were blocked. So we began by mobilising villagers to join us in clearing the internal roads that were inundated with mud and fallen trees,” Shangnaidar Tontang elaborates.
Shangnaidar Tontang undrstood that physical work just by her team and the villagers was not enough. Soon thereafter she started raising funds and managed to get help from humanitarian agencies like TATA Trust, CASA and SPHERE India with several others. With these funds she hired a JCB crane. For 45 days, the JCB crane was deployed to clean out roads for up to 70 kilometres, enough for families to make their way to the nearest town, located in the adjoining Thoubal district. At the same time, this enabled rescue materials to be brought to them.
“For nearly two months, no one had been able to go for work or buy their daily provisions, including food. There was no way to get medicines or go to the hospital at Kakching in Thoubal. With the roads becoming accessible, mobility was restored and government vehicles with medicines, clothes and other things could come in without any problems,” narrates Tontang.
Personal loss and income generation was the biggest obstacle for the people. The main source of earning for the people in the district is agriculture, handicraft, handloom and sale of forest products like wild vegetables and firewood. The disaster had put a stop to all these activities. Today, the determined activist has taken on the task of preparing her people for any impeding disaster by introducing awareness programmes and rehab services.
“We were caught unawares last year and had to struggle to find a foothold. In fact, for many, the painful memories haven’t faded yet. We are conducting regular trauma counselling to help them deal with it. Besides this, we are doing trainings to empower communities to tackle floods and landslides. Though disasters cannot be predicted, we will definitely be better prepared, emotionally and physically,” Shangnaidar Tontang says.