ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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A Disaster Foretold

Despite repeated warnings and lessons, why are we unprepared to deal with earthquakes?

The earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale that hit Sikkim and affected Bihar, north Paschimbanga, Nepal and Tibet on 18 September unleashed a trail of devastation that is yet to be properly assessed. As the death toll keeps mounting daily, news of roads that have disappeared, entire villages that have been wiped out and workers of the Teesta-Urja hydel project trapped in tunnels under boulders give us some indication of the misery and horror that the survivors are facing. It is ironical then (and prescient?) to recall what the national workshop on “Earthquake Risk Mitigation Strategy in North-East” held by the National Institute of Disaster Management in Guwahati had said as recently as February this year. It repeated the warnings of reputed seismologists regarding this area and said that the gathering of experts in the field was being held to “sensitise the policymakers of the north-eastern region about the natural ‘time bomb’ on which the geology, geomorphology and geography of the region are embedded”. And went on to say, “If the policymakers and administrators at the national, state and local levels ignore such specific advisories from the most credible sources and fail to take necessary measures for mitigation and preparedness for such catastrophic events, the blame would lie squarely on them”.

That the north-eastern region of India has been included in the severe seismic Zone V of the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) code is all too familiar. Coupled with the fact that much of it is also remote and inaccessible, an earthquake of this magnitude spells human and material loss that is almost unquantifiable. The Shillong earthquake of 1897 and the Assam earthquake of 1950 wreaked terrible havoc, measuring, as both did, 8.7 on the Richter scale. In between there were at least 10 other quakes. Addressing the nation on 9 September 1950 the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had said that “changing conditions” had made this north-east corner vital to us in many respects and that from being a neglected outpost of empire it might become a highway between many countries and India. His hopeful anticipation is open to debate but what is undisputed is that seismologists, both foreign and Indian, have repeated the lessons learnt following these disasters. That these have fallen on deaf ears are evidenced by a number of factors. As usual, the Indian army (and the Indo-Tibetan Border Force) was pressed into rescue operations but this only served to highlight the fact that the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) guidelines had been ignored by the centre. These recommendations ask for the stationing of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) teams in the capitals of all the north-eastern states, besides Port Blair and Srinagar. However, media reports quoted the union home ministry as saying that NDrF teams could not reach the devastated areas in time because they were “not in the correct deployment mode”. Incidentally, these teams were rushed from Delhi and Kolkata but could not reach the affected areas even 24 hours after the earthquake due to inclement weather.

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