Nepal earthquake: It was inevitable, the big one hits home

  • Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Apr 25, 2015 20:58 IST

Ever since middle school almost two decades ago, we had been told it is on its way. Earthquakes cannot be predicted but seismic vulnerability can be ascertained.

The last big quake to devastate Nepal and Bihar had occurred in 1934 - and plates were moving again dangerously. International agencies were investing in boosting state capacity to deal with an eventuality; FM stations had been running awareness programmes on indispensability of earthquake kits; and NGOs had been pointing to the implications of Kathmandu's unplanned growth, unthinkably rapid demographic explosion, and unsafe building standards.

But caught up in the vortex of an endless political transition and succumbing to fatalism, we did little to prepare.

It happened on Saturday afternoon.

But for me it was the middle of the night, far away at the University of Pennsylvania where I am on a brief fellowship. When I woke up, I noticed over 281 whatsapp messages, dozens of emails with only one question. Are you and the family fine? A quick glance at twitter revealed the inevitable had happened. The big one had hit home.

My wife back in Delhi had contacted my parents. My father was in Kathmandu; he has suffered a stroke in the past and has limited mobility. Smartly, he stayed on the ground floor room instead of trying to rush out which could have led to an accident. I managed to Skype with him as he was sitting in the lawns, and recalled the intensity of the 7.9 quake a little while back. My mother, travelling in the hills, was on the road. After a nerve wracking gap, she had been successfully contacted and was safe. Our house boundary wall had collapsed, but given the scale of the tragedy, our damage meant nothing.

Before the numbers come in and one can grasp the big picture, an earthquake triggers an avalanche of human emotions - of fear, of numbness, of panic at the fate of those in the middle of it. Memories come hurling back when a street you have grown up seeing is transformed, in seconds, to ruins; when someone you hold dear cannot be contacted.

Friends wrote to say they were fine. One expat friend who worked in post quake Haiti said he had never experienced something like this, even in Central America. Social media provided succour at a time when traditional print platforms - their own office buildings damaged - struggled to cope, averting an information vacuum. Networks were jammed but text and Skype was easier. After time online, just checking up on friends and family, one could step back.

The scale of the tragedy is indeed enormous. All of Kathmandu seemed to be out on the streets as aftershocks kept occurring. Many planned to sleep in open spaces on Saturday night. Roads had fractured.

At the time of writing, more than 800 people are dead. But the epicentre was near a mid western hill district. Information from the mountains is only trickling in and experts predict that the casualties will be in the thousands. It could be even ten thousand or more, by one estimation. It is more severe than the Kashmir earthquake, wrote expert Dave Petling in his blog, predicting landslides. He noted, "We should expect extensive building damage with many thousands buried; serious damage to infrastructure...and many landslides...With the monsoon just two months away, the situation will be particularly acute." Landslides in particular will obstruct rescue and relief operations.

Anecdotal evidence on social media already indicates that rural homes in district after district - Lamjung, Gorkha, Dhading - have collapsed. Saturday is the weekly holiday in Nepal - and that must have prevented thousands of casualties. Many more kids would have died if they were in schools, given the state of our school infrastructure.

Kathmandu valley was historically home to three kingdoms - Kathmandu itself, Patan and Bhaktapur. Heritage buildings in all three centres have got damaged, on different scales, some reduced to a rubble. In Patan alone, journalist Kunda Dixit noted seven temples have got razed. An iconic tower - Dharara - collapsed, and took with it scores of lives.

The tragedy will test the resolve of the Nepali state, the capacity of which at the best of times is limited.

Rebuilding Kathmandu, and more importantly, reaching out to those in more remote areas will require political energy, administrative competence, and international help. India has been quick off the mark, with PM Narendra Modi personally monitoring the situation, sending assistance and working with the Nepal government.

In the last twenty years, Nepal has seen a devastating civil war, the massacre of its entire royal family, a change in government every year on an average, popular protests and constant instability. Sometimes a tragedy can be an opportunity - as the tsunami enabled peace on Aceh shows us.

It is time for Kathmandu's political elite to bury their differences and focus - solely - on rescue, relief, reconstruction and revival of national economy and the national sprit. Nepal cannot take any more tragedies.

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