The Tremoring Earth: Preparing for the Catastrophe

This reading list underscores the need to put in place a framework and plan of action for the swift rescue and reconstruction work after disasters strike,  and the importance of earthquake preparedness in India. By building better norms, learning from examples across the globe, and putting checks and balances in place, countries can substantially reduce the scale of any imminent disaster.  It explains the impetus to involve critical stakeholders beyond the sphere of the government, such as local communities.

On February 6, 2023, southeast Turkey and Syria were hit by a high frequency earthquake and subsequent aftershocks, which caused significant damage and large-scale fatalities. This has reignited the discussion about earthquake safety in India, as zoning and construction regulations remain lax in the country.

This 2011 EPW Editorial criticises the trend of post facto treatment of major disasters and emphasises on the need to shift focus to put concrete measures in place.  “Considering the past calamities, the lessons drawn from them and the sheer expertise begging to be tapped, why is it that every fresh disaster is treated as the first one?”

In the dialectics of man and nature, such cataclysmic events quite often leave a psychological imprint. “Such natural events shake people’s consciousness, change their thinking, and reformulate their relationship to nature, restructure the system of settlement, indeed, the character of social life.” (Khera, 2001)  Further, PD Khera, in his observations of the aftermath of theKutch earthquake reflected on its diverse consequences on the minds of the locals- “Even a little unsteadiness or terrifying sound makes them recall the fateful events. Yet the people of Kutch have exhibited extraordinary courage to cope and continue with their endeavour to develop quake-resistent settlements.”

While natural disasters do not differentiate amongst humans, due to embedded hierarchies in society, they often end up impacting lives quite differently. For instance, in Reflections on the Kutch Earthquake, through her in-depth, on-ground examination, Lyla Mehta observed that earthquakes tend to either reinforce existing social cleavages, or even create new ones. That they have the capacity to disrupt socio-political institutions and affect government machinery drastically.

“Kutch’s marginal position in Gujarat also played a key role in the total collapse of government machinery. Despite its unique ecology and geology, there has been a marked lack of regional planning. The administration of Gujarat has been happy to leave Kutch as a ‘punishment post’ for its officers and bureaucrats rather to prioritise issues concerning its development and welfare. Little wonder then that officials could not cope when the disaster struck.”

In a similar vein, in A Calcutta Diary’, 2001 the author quipped- “Believe it or not, the consequences of natural calamities too have a specific class bias.” The author explains that those who have more can appropriate more, as the rich tend to monopolise the procurement of sturdy building blocks, laying sturdy foundations to the buildings they reside in, while the poor struggle in ramshackle structures.

“Earthquakes do not kill, buildings do”

The above is a common saying that highlights the importance of planned architecture.  As observed through cases in Japan and Chile, innovation in infrastructure and stringent building codes can help minimise the losses. Cities form a complex network of institutions, infrastructure, and information; they depend on the smooth operation of these systems. 

Yet, as this 2022 Commentary, Mainstreaming Urban Resilience in India’ points out, the cities’ fragility is constantly threatened by two factors, namely

“(i) Shock: a phenomenon threatening major loss of life, damage to assets and a city’s ability to function and provide ­basic services, particularly for poor or vulnerable populations, urban flood, earthquake, etc.(ii) Stress: a chronic (ongoing or cyclical) natural or human-made event or pheno­menon that renders the city less able to function and provide basic services, parti­cularly for poor or vulnerable populations.” Hence, while it is difficult to control a phenomenon from occurring, the stress caused by that phenomenon can be avoided through risk identification and communication, institutional as well as legislative systems and adequate funding. 

India, a country with a tremendously large population, has a shortage of housing amenities, and the country’s poor usually have to make do in shelters that lack structural robustness. While the state formulates building by-laws and enforces them in order to ensure safety and health, it neglects the same standards to a hazardous level at its discretion. The 2020 EPW Engage article titled ‘Building Regulations Must Ensure Safety and Public Health For All’, explains how concerted efforts must be made to address the gap between policy making, compliance and enforcement.

“First, it is highly advisable to cross-subsidise the levies from non-residential and luxury housing violations to subsidise building material among low-income housing. Second, organised workshops and training programmes at affordable rates can spread information and technical skills about building by-laws. These workshops should promote creativity and innovation in thinking of low-cost and durable materials and designs.”

Commodification of disasters

Rehabilitation of thousands is never an easy process, however, it becomes important to ensure that it is not further magnified by hindering aid. This 2006 article, ‘Making of a Disaster’, explains how, after the earthquake in Pakistan, relief work was turned into a means for conducting business. This could be observed through the procurement of tents, the army seizing control of the relief goods supply, with the victims of the earthquake left to be dealing with oppressive conditions.

“The earthquake has generated millions of dollars of commercial activity, a great deal of which takes place under the table. That is, of course, the legacy of colonialism.”

Collaborative rebuilding

In Ethnography of an Earthquake’ , 2002, P D Khera undertook a close study of the on-ground realities after the Kutch earthquake, exploring how it shook people's consciousness, changed their thinking, reformulated their relationship with nature, restructured the system of settlement and  the character of social life. He remarked,

“The response of the people of Gujarat, international community and the wider Indian society was overwhelming. It, in fact, ended the traditional isolation of Kutch. A large number of NGOs, UNDP, UNICEF and others came to share the resettlement task, apart from the state government. A group of NGOs formed Kutch Abhiyan, a body with full support of the state, international agencies and the people.”

This Commentary ‘Earthquake Response: Beyond Bricks and Mortar’, 2001, poses the following questions,

“Does an earthquake or any other disaster, natural or otherwise, shatter only walls and roofs? How about spirits, confidence, drive, aspirations, plans, hopes? How about livelihoods?” It argues that resettlement can turn into an exclusive process, and vouches for a system that not only constructs houses, but allows the factoring in of the deep social, emotional and psychological impacts of the tragedy.

These examples serve as a reminder to avoid a piecemeal approach to tackle the complexities of calamities. Cases around the world have demonstrated that with a vigilant citizenry and simple practises, one can help mitigate even major quakes. A collaborative approach involving different stakeholders, such as coordination of activities, both between different NGOs and between NGO and state actors can help in revival of the affected areas. Clearing the debris as soon as possible, forms an important step to prevent the spread of epidemics. Ensuring not just the quantum of relief and aid, but also its steady reach to those who need it most, is also a responsibility that needs to be taken up.


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