Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reflexes in rushing aid to quake-struck Nepal have been perfect. He knows about earthquakes from the time of the Bhuj tragedy, on January 26, 2001. He was not chief minister of Gujarat then, but he was on his way to assuming that office when Bhuj shook not just Gujarat but all of India out of seismological complacency.
And so our prime minister knows what an earthquake is and does. Also, how help comes pouring in from all over the country and beyond as well. Especially from neighbours.
We like to think of Sri Lanka as our “small neighbour”. But when Bhuj jolted us out of our smugness on Republic Day in 2001, then President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar did what any neighbour, small or big, would have done — they lost no time in offering and indeed, giving us help. For a nation that was battling, 24X7, a most brutal form of terrorism, had no foreign exchange reserves worth the name and was, in fact, in need of every kind of help from other nations, Sri Lanka’s response was noteworthy. Colombo rustled up a money contribution and a sizeable quantity of blankets and clothing for distribution to the quake-affected. “No used clothes”, Kumaratunga made clear. “Only factory-fresh items”.
A couple of days later, I called on Arthur C. Clarke at his Colombo villa-cum-futurist office. I had been intending to do so ever since I arrived in that city to work at India’s high commission but it took that quake of quakes to jolt me into seeking that call.
The visionary received me in his book-lined study. He was in a wheel chair, an old spinal injury impeded his motor movement. I asked Clarke if, in his view, earthquake prediction would ever be possible. His eyes lit up, he said, “strange that you should ask that”. He wheeled himself to a bookshelf full of his own works and pulled out a squat novel, Richter 10, co-authored by him, as if in answer to my question.
Clarke’s introduction to Richter 10 begins thus: “Many years ago I was standing in a Delhi hotel when I became aware of a faint vibration underfoot. ‘I had no idea’ I said to my hosts, ‘that Delhi has a subway system’. ‘It doesn’t’, they answered. That was my one and only experience of earthquakes.”
Clarke’s only novel about earthquakes begins, therefore, with his only real-life experience of an earthquake — in Delhi. When it comes to earthquakes, the planet is one.
The protagonist of the novel, Lewis Crane, crippled and orphaned in the “great” Californian earthquake of 1974, grows up to be a physicist and a Nobel laureate with a passion for devising a method for quake prediction. Clarke now returned to my question and said, while earthquake prediction may take some more time, what should be done is inaugurate a new architecture in quake-prone areas that would not result in such devastation.
Will we take heed of his words? Earthquake anticipation remains more an ideal than an actuality.
A couple of years after Bhuj and my meeting with Clarke, I was posted in Iceland, home to the world’s greatest geothermal reserves and volcanoes, in what looks like a lunar landscape. “The earth is like the human brain”, an Icelandic scientist explained to me. “Prior to a stroke, mini-strokes are known to occur. They generally go unnoticed for they are very, very minor. We try to find out through sensors how many mini-quakes have occurred and within what frequency and where and then, from the data pattern of mini-quake densities and intensities, we are able to conclude if a quake is on its way, like a major stroke”.
India and Iceland have since collaborated on earthquake anticipation. Sensors have been put into the ground at some sites, including our Northeast. We need to know if these installations forewarned us about the Nepal quake.
We have lost time. We can lose no more. We must attempt the following: First, an urgent seismic re-zonation of the Saarc region needs to be carried out. Himalayan members — Pakistan, India, Bhutan, Nepal — need to either confirm or update the existing zonations, reminding us of the areas of very high risk, high risk, low risk and little risk. This should be public knowledge. Why should the public not know what the seismic values of their lands are, what the MSK (Medvedev-Sponheuer-Karnik) seismic intensities are, and how they affect the sites they live in?
Second, a Saarc seismological agency needs to be set up. This should be independent of the member countries’ meteorological departments and keep all member-states informed of seismicities as regularly as the met office informs us about the weather. And, even more pertinently, it should keep the various administrative stakeholders informed, alerted and advised.
Third, an earthquake plan for the Himalayas needs to be drawn up. Details need to be worked out on how rescue and relief operations can be conducted by air, land and water, in rough weather conditions and elusive terrains.
Fourth, built structures in the Himalayas need to be identified as very high risk, high risk and low risk so that their residents can be forewarned and also made responsible for protecting themselves and those in the vicinity by securing the concerned buildings against seismic risk.
Fifth, the sites for all large dams and nuclear installations in the region need to be reevaluated from a seismic point of view. How many of them are in high earthquake risk areas? What if an earthquake of the intensity that shook Nepal shakes them, what will the fallout be?
A “seismic stroke” cannot be prevented but by conjoint planning and action in good time, its blow can be softened. Before time lulls us into complacency again, we must follow up the splendidly reflexive first-aid response to Nepal’s trauma by inaugurating an abiding Saarc earthquake management regime. The very fragility of the Himalayas can give the Saarc a defining stability.
The writer, a former high commissioner to Sri Lanka and ambassador to Iceland, is now Distinguished Professor in History and Politics, Ashoka University.