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Abysmal failure to check nature's fury

December 30, 2004

The catastrophic consequences of tectonic plates grinding against each other deep down under the Indian Ocean are truly devastating. Ferocious killer waves, beguilingly called tsunami, triggered by a massive ocean bed earthquake, have laid to waste tens of thousands of human lives and habitation from South-East Asia to Africa.

The death toll in Indonesia's Sumatra tops the list, followed by that in Sri Lanka. Closer home in India, those who survived nature's titanic fury, are now burying the dead. The survivors may have won this battle, but they face an uncertain future, more so those who have lost their wherewithal.

In India, as elsewhere in South-East Asia, natural disasters are viewed, both by governments and people, with a certain sense of fatalism -- that which is predetermined shall inevitably happen. Death is as much a part of an individual's karma as is birth; prosperity and poverty are either karmic bounty or punishment.

And therein lies the irony of an otherwise different reality.

For instance, India's scientists have achieved, with limited resources, what few developing countries can even dare to dream of: they have forged nuclear weapons, sent rockets into space, designed ballistic missiles, fashioned low cost but highly effective satellites and put together super-computers, all with indigenous talent and technology.

But the determination to use science for achieving all these remarkable goals has been abysmally lacking in the application of science to mitigate the disastrous consequences of cyclones, floods, earthquakes and, as has been demonstrated this past week, a strange and freakish phenomenon called tsunami.

It would, however, be incorrect to entirely blame our innate sense of fatalism for this spectacular failure. Political cynicism, bureaucratic lethargy and a corrupt society have contributed in no small measure.

Soon after the cataclysmic cyclone in Orissa in 1999, there was much talk about putting into place a national disaster management system. But as the earthquake in Gujarat in 2001 proved, the system did not exist beyond the file in which it was conceived. Last Sunday's horror only reinforces that perception.

It is nobody's case, as is being made out by peeved and churlish bureaucrat scientists in India, that the killer waves that lashed mercilessly on India's south-eastern shore and all but engulfed the hapless Andaman and Nicobar Islands could have been halted in their tracks. But it would have been definitely possible to mitigate their impact if we had had the appropriate technical system in place.

As the enormity of the tragedy unfolds and questions are raised about the absence of early warning mechanisms, the bureaucrat scientists' response has been predictable. First, we were told that there is no effective early warning system. Next, we heard the hackneyed 'Third World' response: An effective system requires enormous funds that we can ill afford.

And now, after Union Minister of State for Science and Technology Kapil Sibal has announced that new equipment will be purchased and put into place to track seabed tremors and their impact, our bureaucrat scientists have dismissed early warning systems as not being foolproof.

The seemingly callous response of India's bureaucrat scientists is not without reason. India's scientific establishment is virtually an extension of its decrepit public sector economy. Entirely controlled by the Government of India, these establishments have been used to further government's narrow political agenda -- for example, forging of nuclear weapons or trial-testing missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Over time, scientists in these establishments have begun to think and act like bureaucrats in other official establishments, toeing the political line, common sense be damned. The political slogan of self-reliance, therefore, has become a mantra in our scientific establishments, never mind the fact that this has excluded India from the benefits that accrue from multi-nation collaborative arrangements.

The US-led 26-nation Pacific Tsunami warning system is an example. India chose not to join this arrangement, ostensibly because what happens in the Pacific is not of any interest to us. But had India been a member, and had there been an effective mechanism in position, the two hours that the killer waves took to travel before they struck shore could have been used to save thousands of the lives that have now been lost.

A sense of misplaced pride in our own ability and the outmoded slogan of self-reliance kept India out of the Pacific arrangement. On the other hand, a more down-to-earth pragmatism as practised by China convinced its leaders and scientists that joining the Pacific arrangement was not without merit.

Decades of working in isolation and under political tutelage have made our bureaucrat scientists both incapable of working with colleagues from other countries and unable to think in terms of non-state, people-centric projects. Worse, the senior among them are a politicised lot who willingly hitch their fortunes to the lot of politicians and not the fate of the masses. I have personally witnessed this during my days in the Prime Minister's Office.

India is not lacking in funds. After all, if sufficient funds can be mobilised to send a spacecraft to Moon, or for that matter, to underwrite relief and rehabilitation on the scale required to cope with tragedies like those witnessed in Orissa in 1999, in Gujarat in 2001 and now in southern India, then money can be marshalled to purchase equipment for early warning systems.

Of course, compared to sending rockets into space, triggering nuclear devices, firing inter-continental missiles and planning a mission to Moon, there is no glamour for our bureaucrat scientists in manning such systems or keeping a watch on surface and underwater tremors. After all, it is not everyday that tectonic plates stir up trouble. In predicting potential disasters and sounding alerts, they would be merely doing what thousands of scientists are doing in other parts of the world. Hence the reluctance, the pathetic attempt to snigger at others' success.

Such cynicism, however, is not the scientific establishment's alone. We could learn from the latest disaster and procure the equipment necessary to set up an early warning system. But no system can work in isolation; neither can machine nor technology supplant the human or political element.

For an effective, real-time early warning mechanism, India will have to think in terms of a regional arrangement; indeed, with its huge pool of scientific talent and other resources, it should lead the way for other nations in the Indian Ocean region to come together on a common platform. Instead of setting itself apart from others, India must learn to become a part of a common endeavour. That is good strategy; the tactics are obvious.

Simultaneously, the Government of India should adopt a zero tolerance policy in dealing with urban planners, developers and builders. The earthquake in Gujarat saw spanking new multi-storeyed buildings collapsing like so many houses of cards. That pattern could be repeated with as much, if not more, devastating results in cities and towns across India.

Delhi, located in a high seismic zone, is a prime example of collusion between corrupt builders, crooked officials and venal politicians. If a severe earthquake were to strike India's capital city, and even if an effective warning mechanism were to ring alarm bells, the destruction and loss of lives would be unimaginable.

We could prepare for that eventuality with equanimity born of our sense of fatalism. Or, we could yet learn from the USA how to stop death from crossing the threshold. Earthquakes of equal magnitude struck the USA in 1989 and Iran in 2003. The loss of American lives was limited to 63. In Iran, 41,000 people died.

Tsunami Strikes: Complete Coverage

Kanchan Gupta

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Number of User Comments: 23

Sub: Your article on Tsunami warning system>> Few Comments

If India would have gained by joining this treaty, why didn't the coutntries like Thailand and Indonesia, who are members of this Tsunami Warning System ...

Posted by Hari Kumar

Sub: Tsunami

While the tragedy cannot ever be forgotten,the affected countries to prepare and face such situations is a distant cry.And why most of the affected countries ...

Posted by partha biswas

Sub: Abysmal scientific failure!

The head of the Metrological Department of India shoud be fired for not making even an attempt to inform the coastal areas of the impending ...

Posted by Y.Malladi

Sub: Scientific failure

Dear Mr. Kanchan Gupta, Your article is very thaught provoking. I feel it is high time fully removed its ideological isolated instincts. It is time ...

Posted by Hiren Bafna

Sub: What a shame!

Really a shame! In this matter also, private corporations had better take the lead. Multinational systems must be set in place so that the loss ...

Posted by Lak


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