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February 1, 2001
The earthquake is a natural phenomenon, but the death of thousands of people is the result of Man's errors or, rather, the government's errors. The key murderer is the government.
Look at it from the purely scientific angle. Man-made activities are not responsible for earthquakes; it is a natural phenomenon that affects human lives. It is well known that large parts of India are seismic zones, particularly the Himalayas. The Indian plate is pushing against the Eurasian plate and, because of that, enormous pressure is building up inside the Himalayas, which are rising by a few centimetres every year. Stress keeps building on the rocks inside the earth and a time comes when they break. As a result, an enormous vibration is released, causing an earthquake.
We know this is happening, so we need to construct buildings that are earthquake resistant. The way the atomic energy buildings were built in Gujarat, which are safe despite the quake.
But, generally speaking, we do not build earthquake resistant structures because we have a corrupt, dishonest and inefficient government. Anything it handles is a disaster. The truth is, despite all its bravado about Indian science, the government has failed to bring science into our lives.
The government has failed to deal with natural disasters. In fact, we should not forget the drought situation in Saurashtra. It is going to be an utter disaster. But the government will still wait for years for the Narmada dam to be functional -- if it ever happens -- to bring much-needed water to the region despite the fact that there are local alternatives.
The government cannot even decide the scale of the earthquake, even though a difference of one point on the Richter Scale means the vibrations of the earth are 10 times stronger. The central government's Crisis Management Group, headed by the Cabinet secretary, takes three days to make a decision on whether or not to send gas cutters!!
When a similar tragedy takes happens in the West, the number of deaths are much fewer because of their excellent relief services. We are not prepared for it here. Besides, there is no respect for the life of the poor in India and, in most natural disasters, they are the ones who are affected the most. But, in the present tragedy, the government will try and do something because the middle class too has been affected; otherwise this government will be shaken.
The graver point of concern is that the Himalayas are extremely seismic and geophysicists are of the view that pressure is building inside it. One day there can be a big earthquake -- measuring up to even nine on the Richter Scale -- in Uttaranchal or Himachal Pradesh. Such an earthquake could cause unimaginable damage not just there, but in Delhi as well.
It is true that nobody obeys the rules and regulations, even if they are regarding quake-resistant buildings. It is important the government tries to educate the people about the need to do so. Akin to that total liability concept laid down by the Supreme Court in the Bhopal gas leak case, the government should come up with a liability law so that if a building falls, the builder would be held responsible and forced to provide compensation.
We badly need a deterrent to force people to follow earthquake resistant standards while constructing buildings, so that both loss of human lives and destruction of property is reduced to a minimum when a natural disaster occurs.
Anil Agarwal, who heads the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, spoke to Basharat Peer.
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