Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Jolt from slumber

Shankar Ray/Kolkata

The recent earthquake in Sikkim shows how unprepared are we to deal with natural calamities. There is a need to look at how we construct our houses.

A well-known geo-scientist in an interview with a national daily stating that India is about to be as one of the most disaster prone areas in the world. "India faces cyclones, floods, natural and man-made disasters but while it is possible to have forewarning of disasters like floods and cyclones, that's not the case with earthquakes. The only forewarning possibility with earthquakes is to install sensors that give a lead time of a few seconds."
But is this really new information? Earth scientists the world over know that over 60 per cent of geographical area of India belongs to highly or moderately seismic categories - let's be aloof from jargons by zones 3, 4 and 5. The seismic zonation by the Geological Survey of India and the National Geophysical Research Institute was placed before the policy-framing authorities in New Delhi using state-of-the-art scientific and technological methods and tools like digital broadband seismographs and accelerographs.
The Indian Geophysical Union presented at an international convention placed a document on "Seismic Hazard and crustal formations" in 2008, but all this is shelved as such hard truths are not palatable to the nexus comprising construction firms, civil engineers, architects and of course the alliance of IAS biggies and corrupt section of politicians. Words like seismic zones surface after catastrophic earthquakes. Otherwise, systematic destruction of villages and semi-urban regions continues in the name of development as if development exclusively means urbanization and industrialization. This lobby that is at home in generating catastrophes is against sustainable development whose mainstay is agriculture and fisheries. Small wonder, out of 3.2 million masons engaged in construction, only 34,000 have been imparted knowledge about seismic designs.
Columnist Sreelatha Menon referred to the power of local knowledge and wisdom. There is a Sikkimese (Lepcha) adage, "Earthquakes don't kill people, buildings do" She is right that the truth "again came to the fore in the recent earthquake." Those who have made many trips to Sikkim and mingled with the Lepchas and the Bhotias know how deep their attachment is to mountainous villages unlike the Nepali settlers. Actually not the innocent Nepali settlers but vested interests who dominate in the process of haphazard settlement through wanton eco-destruction are the real culprits everywhere. The Lepchas cite a Cree that explains the contradiction between human greed and nature. "Only after the last tree has been cut down, only after the last river has been poisoned, only after the last fish has been caught, you will find that money cannot be eaten," Menon appropriately noted.
Small wonder, some scientists, based on the contemporary international trends and their practical experience, suggest a correlation between earthquake deaths and corruption. "The Haiti earthquake resulted in the death of three lakh people because it is one of the most corrupt nations in the world. We in India also suffer human causalities because of lax implementation of our building codes. Japan, California, New Zealand and Chile are earthquake-prone but their earthquake preparedness has ensured minimum loss in terms of life and destruction of their urban structures", the geoscientist bluntly stated.
Many readers may accuse me of going illogically adrift, if I say, we should not be in a hurry to make new legislations on land acquisition although some columnists are queerly worried about the hurdles in acquisition of land for so-called development. True, land is "fast becoming a high-risk asset in many parts of India but they are little concerned about the status of our high-risk geographical domain. Peasants who want to continue with their present livelihood are abused "politically organized Farmers, resisting large-scale government land acquisitions and even questioning past buyouts." They need to have a clear perception of Section 3(f) of Land Acquisition Act,1894 ('public purpose'), instead of tendentious rejection of it for having been framed during the colonial era. Public purpose and commercial purpose are inexplicably mixed up. Gainers are vested interests, especially the construction lobby.
Why not a national debate through nationwide public hearing or jan-sunani?

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