Monday, 6 April 2020

When Nepal Tremored At 7.9

Updated: May 23, 2015 1:27 pm

The Himalayas, a relevantly young and fragile mountain system, have always been susceptible to the catastrophe, such as avalanche, landslides, cloud-bursts and earthquakes, if the available data of last two centuries is to be assessed and reviewed. One cannot say for certain but the slow melting of glacier systems and unchecked, rather commercial mountain climbing activity by non-serious adventure lovers in the last two decades, have also added fat to the fire

Unlike any other gift of nature, Earthquake (EQ) is a mystifying phenomenon defying prediction. Instances of last moment sensing, nevertheless, by the birds and animals have been noticed time and again, more so, in the remote corners of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. It also goes without saying that it has been facilitated and bolstered further by the unjustified greed of human beings to build unwanted and unaesthetic dwelling units in the confirmed “risk zones” in the hilly terrains, coupled with the dangerous seismic zones IV and V along the plains. No one takes care. All that matters is to satisfy one’s extreme materialistic desire to have more and more. Delhi could be termed a blatant example. One and all are simply immune and oblivious. Thus the philosophy of Sustained Development is being systematically ignored, if not completely side-lined..

Vulnerability Of The Eastern Himalayas

The Himalayas, a relatively young and fragile mountain system have been always susceptible to the catastrophe, such as, Avalanche, Landslides, Cloud-bursts and EQs, if the available data of last two centuries is to be assessed and reviewed. Of the two gigantic parts of the Himalayas, the eastern one is more risk-prone and thus continues to cause perpetual tension. The region, apart from being one of the bio-diversity hot spots of the world, abounds with a large number of beautiful water bodies and exotic forest resources, apart from the snow-capped mountains having an average height of more than 20,000 feet.

One cannot say for certain but the slow melting of Glacier systems and unchecked, rather, commercial mountain climbing activity by non-serious adventure lovers in the last two decades, also is adding fat to the fire ignited to suit certain vested interests during the British era. Should not the ongoing climbing expeditions to mount Everest be banned (subsequent to confirmed deaths of 22 climbers and serious injuries to many)? Both the Indian and Nepalese governments should also take cognizance of the hard fact that the budding and experienced climbers are supposed to concentrate on ‘peak’ rather than ‘speak’ to the media for the sake of cheap publicity and TRP.

Gradual Neglect of Sustainable Livelihood

The sustainable livelihoods of the mountain folk, together with unimaginable & endemic flora and fauna are also being harmed consistently, threatened and pushed aside, if not being lost altogether, also by the unforeseen impact of remittances from abroad (which is nothing short of ‘opium’ to the left-over villagers). Damage caused by the massive construction of hydel projects (Underground, low dam or run of river types), all in the name of ‘clean’ power should, by now, be a foregone conclusion.

In the changing scenario, the economically weaker and marginalised sections are gradually shifting to the deceptive ‘green’ pastures down the valleys, thus leaving behind their spouses, young nutrition-deficient children and ageing parents. When a natural disaster occurs, they have to fend for themselves in the absence of their earning members. The reported inefficient administrative set-up and the name-sake health and education backup, possibly caused by long political instability in Nepal add to the crisis.

Core vis-a-vis Periphery

Even if relief and rescue (R&R) work is taken up with more vigour and vitality, on a war footing, above hinted’ peripheries’ tend to be noticed only at the fag-end. The attention of the world, initially, gets focused on the core, that is the capital of the country. This was exactly the depressing scenario witnessed in the ravaged and remote villages of districts of Pokhara or for that matter, in the Barabisey village of Bhajpur in the northern Nepal, four to five days after the biggest tragedy in the only Hindu country in 81 years. A village of Gorkha district located at the epi- centre of 7.9 Richter Scale EQ should deserve all attention. According to one source, of the 150 single unit weak houses, 140 were found reduced to rubble by the rescue team. Needless to say, a sizeable number of lives and cattle were lost by then.

Given the grim state of affairs, it may be worthwhile to take note of the following viable steps at this crucial juncture:

  • One has to avoid any panic reaction upon hearing about a calamity. Any report received/ transmitted/broadcast/telecast/e-mailed/faxed etc. has to be checked and verified prior to locating scene of occurrence. One should also have a quick peep into (time permitting) the recent success stories on the related front, as well.
  • Communication, by and large, in the local lingua franca may have to be established with the affected lots, area Panchayat and administrative st-up at the cutting edge without losing time and sight..Why sight, because most of the major EQ’s since July 1988 in the region have happened in the late afternoon or at dusk. My adopted state of Sikkim had the misfortune of an Earthquake Anniversary as well, the difference being only 3 minutes (short of) between the gloomy dates of september 18, 2011 and september 18, 2012.
  • When you rush helicopter/Aircraft from bigger places, either they cannot land immediately for want of clear signals or due to visibility constraints. On landing too, for the unknown reasons, they are kept immobile during the first night or the early next morning. In the process, the significant ‘golden hour’ is normally lost.
  • Personnel with prior hill/mountain experience should, normally, form the bulk of the rescue teams. The teams, in turn, should settle down swiftly and not appear to be adding to the already tense crisis.The ‘routing through’ process may have to be settled well in advance, by ignoring and setting aside ‘ego’ factor. Ego, rather, will have to go.
  • The day after is the most decisive day, both from the point of view of planning & saving trapped lives but also from the angle of locating the injured,and re-opening the clogged footpaths & roads, setting up cold & rain resistant tents, arranging make-shift toilets with 24×7 water back-up, restrengthening the health centres, reassuring the doctors and the para-medics etc.
  • Enlisting the support of social welfare trusts, organisations and the Gram Panch-ayats for arranging drinking water, generators and bare minimum food and medicine would be in the fitness of things.
  • Good and effective co-ordination with local bureaucracy with a clear channel of communication and regular sharing and dissemination of information is the corner-stone of a R&R mechanism that aims to leave a lasting impact. Uncalled for statements. at the same time, through the media send wrong signals, apart from wasting prime time.
  • Proper storage as also onward supply of needed food packets, drinking water bottles, warm cloths, essential medicines, dis-infectants etc. have to be ensured on a war footing. Additional relief material from abroad will have to be sent for quick distribution on a day today basis, especially to the remote and far-flung villages, still grappling with the cut-off roads & footpaths, sinking zones and above, all, fresh land-slides even in the hard-rock areas. The street tensions and bouts of snatchings, seen day in and day out, thus can be minimised.
  • A core group comprising senior civil and police personnel, experienced institutes, independent experts, relief workers with the prior and current knowledge of affected terrain, doctors, para-medics etc may have to be constituted and set in motion, at the earliest. Same may meet, review, confabulate and draw up strategy on an alternate day basis. Faster the responsibility is handed over to the local administration, is better.
  • Rumour-mongering & misleading statements of any sort through any medium has to be checked, rebutted and suppressed on the day after as also the following four to five days. Diversion of attention on this count may prove inhuman, in addition to inflicting unwanted injuries to the innocent populace, only looking for bare love and care.
  • Jams the airports, helipads, railway stations, bus-stands and markets will have to be cleared in a regular way, TIA, Kathmandu was unnecessarily burdened by a bee-line of affected people who could have also taken the land route to Uttarakhand, UP and Bihar from day three. Cribbing never goes, whether victims are air or land lifted. Apart from facilitating rescue, it would prevent and check spread of many water and air born diseases.
  • Immediate counselling sessions be organised mainly for the women & children, who have survived and have the indomitable courage and strength to live in temporary dwelling units even in view of further suspected tremors. The delivery of a baby boy in a field hospital barely after 5 days of earthquake and subsequent performance of a low key wedding are the definite pointers) of a resolve to survive.
  • Rains will continue to take place, occasionally with hail storms, at the current phase of monsoon. Rescuers, therefore, may have to get used to the prevailing circumstances. Life has to resume in full gear, gradually.

Forces and funds will continue to flow in from the developed countries for the time being but what is important and significant in the ultimate analysis is the local capacity building with an element of sustainability.

Whatever has been seen thus far, is the tip of iceburg. The devastation of much more magnitude is bound to surface in the following week or fortnight when number of dead would exceed even 15,000. One has to prepare, therefore, with more care and precaution for the challenges emanating from the fresh discovery of dead bodies as also the epidemic that normally follows in such trying conditions.

All said and done, thanks to a very timely initiative by the advance thinking Prime Minister of India, many precious lives of not only the Nepalese and Indians but also of 170 Nationals of 15 countries were saved at the nick of time. This is close on the heels of similar daredevil rescue of the nationals of 45 countries from Yemen by the MEA and IAF, barely a fortnight ago.

India is not only re-iterating its long standing and trusted international human commitments since the days of the World War I, it has been also in a position to effectively display its newly acquired and robust disaster management acumen to the whole world in the backdrop of the of more than 20 tremors in Nepal resulting already into the death of 7,500 lives, 12,000 injured and loss of over 30,000 houses, so far. Perhaps we may have reasons to negate the famous statement of noted economist Malthus. He had stated: “When man fails, nature takes over.” In the changing scenario, should not we say,” The nature may have a propensity to take over but man, upon learning bitter lessons, does shift the focus fromcthe centuries-old Relief Method to a better equipped, trained and experienced mitigation regime?”

Lives are still being lost but in lesser numbers and people being shifted in time far outnumbers the people earlier dying during what is called the crucial golden hour.

By Alok K Shrivastava

(The writer is a senior IAS officer. Views expressed are personal)

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