The earthquake that struck Nepal last week and was felt across the subcontinent bore out what seismologists have been saying all along: The Himalayan belt is in for a ‘big one’ any time now. One of the greatest hazard areas in the global earthquake map is along the India-China border, where India literally slams into Asia to prop up the still growing Himalayas. The frequent moderate quakes and the infrequent big temblors in this region make future earthquakes almost a certainty. This raises the all-important question, not about when this geological time-bomb would go off, but as to how well we are prepared for it. A three-pronged action plan would perhaps be in order.
First, the crucial issue of earthquake education must be addressed with the seriousness it deserves. The dos and don’ts to be observed during and after a quake, for instance, should be properly communicated to people to minimise losses. It would also be a good idea to have regular earthquake drills, with emergency alerts broadcast over radio, TV, and social networks about what to do when the ground starts shaking. And afterwards, trained personnel should guarantee emergency evacuation or first aid administration as quickly as possible.
Second, the body count in Nepal is damning evidence of the inadequacy of local housing structures, which lacked even the most basic earthquake protection. Indian agencies should stiffen the criteria for quake-resistant building designs and make it mandatory for real estate agents and buyers to comply with those guidelines. With 60% of the country’s surface area quake-prone, it is alarming that few people care about the available seismic maps, fewer still have access to them, and even fewer use such maps for updating building codes.
Third, talking about ‘disaster management’ is quite different from practising it. The Modi government did well to reconstitute the National Disaster Management Authority, which in its former avatar could never get its act together, not even being able to coordinate with the various state disaster management authorities. Even the hazard maps that are supposed to be drawn for natural calamities like earthquakes remained ‘on file’ in government offices, which meant only a handful of states could come up with half-baked disaster management plans. As a result, India still doesn’t have a robust disaster management and mitigation plan for earthquakes.
But the government alone cannot provide regular training and capacity building to disaster management agencies. NGOs and the civil society too have an important role in creating a State-society partnership for ramping up disaster preparedness and prevention among the public. After all, such systems would only work with imaginative planning and community preparedness — both crucial for emergency responses at the national, state, district, and city levels.
Prakash Chandra is a science writer
The views expressed by the author are personal