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Sikkim Avalanche


Seven tourists dead and several feared trapped as avalanche hit Sikkim’s Nathu La area on Tuesday.


GS-I: Geography (Physical Geography, Climatology, Important Geophysical phenomena), GS-III: Environment and Ecology (Climate Change and its effects), GS-III: Disaster Management

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. Avalanche Struck Nathu La:
  2. Warning mechanism and its compliance
  3. What is an Avalanche?
  4. About Nathu La pass
  5. Important mountain passes in North India
  6. Important mountain passes in North-East India
  7. Vulnerability of Disasters in Himalayas
  8. Way Forward
  9. Conclusion

Avalanche Struck Nathu La:

  • The avalanche struck on the road connecting Gangtok to Nathu La pass on Tuesday.
  • Seven tourists were killed and more than a dozen injured and several tourists were feared to be trapped under the snow along with five-six vehicles after the avalanche.
  • As per the preliminary investigation by the police, the tourists did not have permission to travel beyond ‘Milestone 13’ due to inclement weather.
  • However, they forced tour operators and drivers of their vehicles to take them to the area where the disaster eventually happened.  
  • Similar incidents:
    • Six months ago, a similar tragedy occurred in Uttarakhand that killed 27 mountaineers.

Warning mechanism and its compliance:

  • The incident has brought under scrutiny the warning mechanism and the degree of compliance with the regulations and advisories by various stakeholders.
  • It is important to note that such incidents are not uncommon at tourist places across the country.
  • The National Disaster Management Authority has made it incumbent upon all major skiing operators to post daily warnings about possible avalanches, based on local knowledge.

What is an Avalanche?

  • An avalanche (also called a snowslide) is a rapid flow of snow down a slope, such as a hill or mountain.
  • Avalanches can be set off spontaneously, by such factors as increased precipitation or snowpack weakening, or by external means such as humans, animals, and earthquakes.
  • Primarily composed of flowing snow and air, large avalanches have the capability to capture and move ice, rocks, and trees.
  • Though they share similarities at first, avalanches are distinct from slushflows, mudslides, rock slides, and serac collapses. They are also different from large scale movements of ice.

About Nathu La pass:

  • It is one of the most important Himalayan passes in the country.
  •  It is in Sikkim and gives way to Tibet from Darjeeling and Chumbi valley.
  • Trade and Tourist attraction:
    • The pass retains its significance for the passage of trade in the region and is a major tourist destination because of its scenic beauty.
    • It acts as an important trade route giving passage between India and China. 
    • It is over 55 kilometres from Gangtok.
    • The Tsomgo (Changu) Lake near Nathu la pass is a major tourist attraction.
  • Strategic Significance:
    • We often see in the news about clashes between Indian and Chinese troops at Nathu La(near Sikkim) which is at a strategic location along the Line of Actual Control(LAC). They serve as a major site for armed forces.

Important mountain passes in North India:

  • Bolan Pass:
  • The Bolan Pass is famous for its tactical location. This is the reason why businessmen, attackers, and migratory clans have used the Bolan Pass as an entryway to and from South Asia. 
  • This pass was the original entranceway to India till it was replaced by the Khyber Pass, and offered a way for trade and commerce for the traders and businessmen of Afghanistan and Central Asia
  • The Khyber Pass:
  • It is a mountain pass, which joins Afghanistan and Pakistan. The pass is lying at an elevation of 1,070 m or 3,510 ft. Since very old times, the Khyber Pass has been used as a crucial branch of the historic Silk Road.
  • It functioned as a significant route for business between Central Asia and South Asia. The Khyber Pass also serves as a major site for armed forces.
  • Zoji La Pass
  • It is in the Zaskar range of Jammu & Kashmir. The road route from Srinagar to Leh goes through this pass. It has been created by the Indus River.
  • Banihal Pass
  • It is in Jammu & Kashmir. The National Highway NO.1 A that links Srinagar to Jammu goes through it. It has been created by the Indus River.
  • Shipki La Pass
  • It is in Himachal Pradesh. The road from Shimla to Tibet goes through this pass. The Satluj River flows through this pass.
  • Bara-Lacha Pass
  • It is also in Himachal Pradesh. It links Mandi and Leh by road.
  • Rohtang Pass
  • It is also in Himachal Pradesh. It cuts through the Pir Panjal range. It links Manali and Leh by road.
  • Mana Pass
  • It is in Uttarakhand. The land route to the Kailash and the Manasarovar passes through it.
  • Niti Pass
  • It is also in Uttarakhand. The road to the Kailash and the Manasarovar passes through it.

Important mountain passes in North-East India:

  • Jalep La pass : It is also in Sikkim and gives way to Bhutan. The Tista River has created this pass.
  • Dihang pass: It is in Arunachal Pradesh- Mandalay.It is located in the Northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh. This pass connects Arunachal Pradesh with Myanmar (Mandalay). At an elevation of more than 4000 m, it provides passage.
  • Diphu pass: Arunachal Pradesh- Mandalay. Diphu Pass is a mountain pass around the area of the disputed tripoint borders of India, China, and Myanmar. Diphu Pass is also a strategic approach to eastern Arunachal Pradesh. It lies on the McMahon Line.

Vulnerability of Disasters in Himalayas:

  • Climate Change is aggravating the incidents of avalanches, landslides and other disasters in the Himalayas.
  • The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate found that in the Himalayan ranges, there could be variations in overall water availability, but floods, avalanches and landslides were all forecast to increase. Changes in monsoonal precipitation could also bring more frequent disasters.
  • Changing the rainfall pattern: In 2013, catastrophic loss of lives was seen in the floods that swept Kedarnath. They were triggered by heavy rainfall over a short period in June, first destroying a river training wall, and then triggering a landslide that led to the breaching of the Chorabari moraine-dammed lake, devastating Kedarnath town.
  • The Indian summer monsoon caused by changes to long-term climate could produce even greater damage, by bringing debris and silt down the river courses, destroying physical structures, reducing dam life, and causing enormous losses.
  • Landslide avalanche: In 2021, a snow avalanche triggered possibly by a landslide caused a flash flood in the Rishi Ganga river, a tributary of the Alaknanda in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, washing away a functional small hydroelectric project and destroying the under-construction 520 MW Tapovan Vishnugad project of the NTPC on the Dhauli Ganga river.
  • These problems are also aggravated by the erosion of mountain slopes and the instability of glacial lakes in upper elevations. On the other hand, as the IPCC Special Report points out, the retreat of glaciers in the high mountains has produced a different kind of loss — of aesthetic and cultural values, declines in tourism and local agriculture

Way Forward:

  • Strict Monitoring: The fact that norms were flouted and warnings were ignored underlines the need for close monitoring of avalanche-prone spots.
    • These disaster prone sports must be kept out of bounds for visitors whenever there is an adverse weather forecast.
  • Implementation of instructions: The authorities must regularly check whether all concerned are duly implementing the instructions.
    • In case of lapses, strict action should be taken.
    • No tour must be allowed without factoring in the alerts released by the Meteorological Department
  • Travel Permits: The possible complicity of some officials in the arbitrary issuance of travel permits also needs to be probed.
  • Technology:
    • The use of state-of the- art technology has to go hand in hand with reliance on local inputs to deal with adverse weather events.
  • Hence, a robust and reliable system for timely warning is required to minimise loss of lives and property.
  • An integrated response can mitigate the impact of disasters.


Thought the people in the hills heavily depend on tourism for their livelihood, but it is no less vital to give primacy to all-round safety, especially in ecologically fragile areas.

December 2023