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Richter’s lessons lost

As Kutch and Latur showed, India is vulnerable to earthquakes. We need to know more about them not only for information but also for our safety, writes Gopalkrishna Gandhi.

india Updated: Mar 12, 2010 23:01 IST

The Haiti quake of January 12 that killed over 230,000 people and left 1 million homeless seems far back in time. The one in Chile of February 27 that is still counting its victims seems less distant, yet distant enough. The one that shook Islamabad and its environs on February 28 is as recent as yesterday, but it was, well, not in India. And these are earthquakes in 2010.

How many of us would remember how many died and were rendered homeless in Latur (6.4 Richter, 1993),in Kutch (8 Richter, 2001) or even in the Indian Ocean tsunami (8+ Richter, December 26, 2004) that shook the whole planet from Indonesia to Africa and Indonesia to Alaska? And the brutal one of October 8, 2005, which left 79,000 officially dead in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) and 1,500 in Jammu and Kashmir? To find that out, I would need to Google. It would give me the facts. But even that magic lamp would not convey the magnitude of the inner loss, the raw pain of those whose kin were crushed under falling rubble, heaving hearth, surging seas.

Shortly after the Kutch earthquake on our Republic Day, 2001, I called on Arthur C. Clarke in his Colombo villa-cum-futurist office. I had been intending to do so ever since I arrived in that city to work in India’s High Commission but one thing or another had intervened. It required those ‘interventions’ to be interrupted by that quake of quakes to jolt me into that meeting.

The planetal visionary was confined to a wheel chair from a suspected spinal injury. He opened the conversation with the earthquake. “I have spent three weeks in Ahmedabad as a guest of the Sarabhais,” he said, “and so my sense of sorrow is all the greater.”

I then asked Clarke if in his view earthquake prediction would ever be possible. “Strange that you should ask that,” he exclaimed and wheeling himself to the bookshelves thronging with his own works, pulled out a copy of the squat novel co-authored by him Richter 10. The novel has a foreword by him which 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.”

So, Clarke’s only novel about earthquakes begins with his only real-life experience of an earthquake. And that was in Delhi. What is far, what is near?

The protagonist in the novel, Lewis Crane, has been crippled and orphaned in the ‘great’ Californian earthquake of 1974. He grows to be a physicist and a Nobel Laureate with a passion for devising a method for earthquake prediction.

The world does not heed him. The consequences are terrible. Returning to my question, Clarke went on to say that while earthquake prediction may take some more time, what should be done is to inaugurate a new architecture in quake-prone areas which would not oblige the devastation.

Where does earthquake anticipation stand today? It stands rather still. Except, curiously, in that remote country, Iceland. With its lunarscape of treeless tracts, volcanos and hotwater ‘geysers’, that island nation has shown the way, even beyond the United States which pioneered the studies.

India and Iceland are now working together in this important life and death field. But the nation needs to know more about it, not just for the sake of being better-informed but for the sake of being better-prepared.

And as to quake-resistant architecture, are our cities and towns identifying buildings that are fragile? Are we regulating high-rise constructions in zones of high vulnerability like hills stations?

Darjeeling is a case in point. Building activity of the multi-storeyed kind proceeds on that Himalayan perch remorselessly. Leave alone 10, even 6 on the Richter in a hilltown like Darjeeling or Gangtok, Mussoorie or Shimla can bring logarithmically multiplying devastation to those beauty spots. Rescue itself would be a behemoth of a challenge there, as the thickly populated areas would become impossible to access, the roads climbing up from the plains clogged by quake-induced landslides and treefalls.

Alarmist? Richter 10 is not fantasy. Particularly not for us in India, where the sub-continent’s pushing into Asia has not stopped. Our great monuments, our gleaming new airports, our sky-scrapers are all as vulnerable to the caprice of that crawl as are our smaller homes and hearths. Better far to be shocked by Clarke’s Richter 10 and act, than be rocked by Richters of a lesser force and be unable to move.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi was the Governor of West Bengal from 2004 to 2009.

The views expressed by the author are personal.