Turkey, Syria and the real threat beneath India’s feet
India, which has the Indian Plate pressing onto the Eurasian Plate, which sculpted the Himalayas by colliding, has a similar razor’s edge right along the great Himalayan arc
A razor’s edge separates life from death. The Kathopanishad, a conversation between Nachiketa and Yama, the god of death, uses the Sanskrit phrase for that edge – kshurasya dhara. This edge has a seismic equivalent in the fault lines between the 15 log-jammed tectonic plates on which the Earth’s crust sits. These lines can sleep for decades, centuries even, so quietly that their existence is forgotten by those who are not geologists or seismologists. Which is a huge majority of us. Until they stir and shake, and then mutilate, destroy and kill whatever lies on and along those lines, those razor edges.
No one knows this edge, this dhara today better than the millions of Turkish and Syrian survivors of the earthquakes that devastated those two countries on February 6. With 40,000-odd people dead and the numbers mounting, their people felt the razor’s edges come murderously alive that day. They were asleep when the first quaking happened after 4am at 7.8 on the seismic scale of 0 to 10. A second, measuring 6.7 followed 11 minutes later. The third came like an accomplice of the first, nine hours later, decimating whatever lay on or around those fault lines, those razor’s edges.
These tectonic plates and the fault lines at their intersections keep moving, ever so silently, even as they sleep, exactly as human tissues keep growing even as we slumber.
India, which has the Indian Plate pressing onto the Eurasian Plate, which sculpted the Himalayas by colliding, has a similar razor’s edge right along the great Himalayan arc, stretching from Kashmir to the Northeast. It is asleep as I write this, but perfectly capable of rousing from sleep, and stirring and shaking and killing even as you, dear reader, read this.
Are we aware of what this means?
Many who live in Uttarakhand and other places along or below the great Himalayan arc know this. They have been jolted and maimed and seen their kin killed, time and again. But even they, like all living beings, believe life manages to overcome death, that the chances of long stretches without any earthquakes are greater than the chances of an earthquake occurring. And, as for others who are outside and beyond the zones of danger, the reality of those razor’s edges is pure theory.
This is dangerous innocence. It must end. Seismologists tell us that our two great tectonic plates have now slept enough and that the built-up pressure inside their folds is itching to find release. This may not happen for a long time. It may happen now. The chances of it happening now in the Garhwal-Kumaon region are too serious to be ignored.
Are we ready for that rude experience?
Far from it.
Is it too late?
The Government of India has shown what fast reflexes mean in the speed with which it rushed aid to Turkey and Syria. But the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria have done us, through and within their torment, a great favour by asking us to wake from our sleep before the fault lines wake from theirs. The earthquakes of February 6 have reminded us of the real and imminent danger that lurks beneath our feet.
We have a ministry of earth sciences – a great felicity. And we have a National Disaster Management Authority – another vital asset. What we do not have is public awareness, public participation and public backing for earthquake preparedness. It is time this be generated and “we the people” involved in our seismic safety.
How is this to be done?
I believe this can only be done in the way our involvement was enlisted in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, with the nation’s political and medical leadership helming the process.
I would say, using the vocabulary of the virus surge, that the seismic surge has not started but its rumblings are clear. Just as epidemiologists were heard, if not fully heeded, in 2021, seismologists should be heard and heeded in 2023. And since we are still ahead of the actual strike, we have a distinct advantage this time.
We must bring the existing seismic zonation up to date if that is required. If not, we need to make it known to the public, loud and clear. The zones high on the risk gradient need to know where they stand (and where they may fall). This means that there has to be a seismic mapping of risk factors such as vulnerable buildings, relocation of people living in precarious dwellings and inaccessible tracts (especially in hill regions), schemes for fast-tracking rescue, relief and rehabilitation, with blueprints for helipads, camps, and first aid, zone-by-zone. And also, a hard look, wherever needed, at installations such as reactors and dams situated in high-risk zones. Above all, we must reboot our architectural mores to make earthquake-proofing the norm.
Doing all this will be difficult and expensive.
Not doing it will be… We can ask Turkey and Syria how the kshurasya dhara works.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed are personal