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Nature’s wrath in Nepal: Avoidable suffering

  By Vijay Darda | 04-05-2015

For more than a week now global attention has been focused on the trail of death, devastation and suffering that is hurting millions of people in the Himalayan region of Nepal after a severe earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale rocked its capital Kathmandu and other neighbouring areas. As a natural corollary to a seismic event of this size, there have been aftershocks and milder tremors. In strict geophysical terms, scientists who have been expecting a strong Himalayan earthquake have observed that this is not the big one that they have been awaiting for years. There is no finality about the death toll as yet, but it could cross the 10,000 mark, and still it would be less than 17,500 toll of the 1933 quake, which was measured at 7.3 on the scale. In that sense comparatively given the growth in population density and the coming up of so many new structures, the damage has been far less. We have got away cheaply.

As Nepal’s immediate neighbours, we also experienced the damage is some states, but mercifully both the loss of lives and the destruction of property was much less. We also responded with alacrity in mounting a relief and rescue operation and our efforts in getting out stranded persons from all countries, not just our citizens, have been lauded. But then there are obvious limits of disaster diplomacy and whereas a big brotherly hand is also welcome in difficult times, the big brotherly attitude always remains a problem. In the case of Nepal, it is not expected that a country of its size would have the material and human resources to fight any situation created out of the aftermath of such a giant Himalayan tragedy. We should just do our bit, and wait for the positive results, if any. This is more so in the context of our rivalry with China, that has a huge presence in Nepal’s infrastructure sector.

But the fact that earthquakes reflect the nature’s wrath and its consequences do not always cause suffering inevitably cannot be ignored. These are natural phenomena and cannot be attributed to human acts like sacrificing animals or inflicting suffering on them. It is also equally unwise to argue that temples such as Pashupatinath in Kathmandu or Kedarnath have survived the wrath of nature due to divine intervention. There is no harm if the devout bhakts are intoxicated by this notion, but then it would be better if the building construction practices followed in these places from ancient times are codified and imbibed in toto. The government needs to become strict on this issue and without showing any mercy or leniency implement this code in all cities.

If necessary the existing buildings must be demolished and replaced by structures that adhere to these norms. Currently this may appear a costly proposition, but if we take a long term view, this would be a cheaper and safer option in big cities that have seen mindless construction of massive skyscrapers. Our planners have behaved as if there is no tomorrow and their search for low cost options has created hazardous structures all over. We must internalize the maxim that it is better to be safe than to be sorry at the level of every citizen. A large part of our country falls in the hazardous region of seismic turbulence. Besides, man-made factors too have contributed to this problem, with one of these being the problem of the impact of the huge quantity of water stored in reservoirs of dams – leading to reservoir induced seismic activity.

We should also not get carried away by the good press that we seem to be generating for our relief and rescue work in Nepal. Praiseworthy as the dedication and effort of our personnel have been in Nepal there is no way to hide the mammoth deficiencies that are an integral part of the functioning of the local bodies that have to be the first ones to respond to such crisis. The point is New Delhi may be prepared to mount a rescue operation, can the same be said of places like Balaghat or Amravati-smaller towns that still have the same vulnerability in the face of any disaster – natural or man-made?

Man cannot prevent or predict earthquakes, but there is a fact that we can do things to limit the damage caused by them. Several earthquake prone regions like Japan and California have shown the way. The damage caused by frequent earthquakes in these regions has been limited by following quake-resistant designs for building construction, and maintaining a drill-cum survival kit for such conditions. We should remember that quakes do not kill people, it is the collapse of the buildings during the tremors that is deadly and harmful.

The system of National Disaster Management needs to be strengthened and decentralized down to the district level. The manpower and technical capabilities at the district level has to be coordinated with its geographical needs and its overall environment. There has to be a definite commitment in terms of resources, planning and equipping of these district level centres. Presently, even the NDMA has not been reconstituted, and whereas this may not impact its functional ability in times of specific crisis situations, the absence of leadership in any organization is always damaging. We would have learned the right lessons only if we accept that disaster prevention is the best way to manage disasters, and everything else is just the healing of avoidable wounds. Creating a regime that pulls down all vulnerable structures, and ensures that all buildings are quake resistant is the only way to fight earthquakes. We have to follow the Japan way.

Before I conclude…

It is not just a question of fighting earthquakes. The overall issue is to develop a national life style that is homogenous with nature. Then it covers every aspect – climate change or green house gases. The inclement weather in March and April – the heaviest rainfalls in these months and the associated damage to the crops of the farmers is also a part of the same chain that heightens the sufferings induced by the earthquake. We seem to be having stereotyped responses to these challenges from nature and we have not even developed a mindset that is ready to combat such crises. Of course, the systemic failures enhance the misery, but basically there is an attitude to live as if there is no tomorrow. Whereas the fact is that we are not the owners of natural resources, and we are mere usurpers who are betraying the welfare of our coming generations.


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Nature’s wrath in Nepal: Avoidable suffering


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