Nepal’s agony

| Updated on January 23, 2018 Published on April 27, 2015

Saturday’s killer quake highlights the risks the region faces, as well its lack of preparedness to deal with such catastrophes

Saturday’s earthquake in Nepal has precipitated a human tragedy of vast proportions. In one cataclysmic moment, thousands of lives and millions of livelihoods have been destroyed, while a significant part of a nation’s cultural heritage was wiped out. The death toll — already over 3,300 as of Monday — is likely to climb higher as communications get gradually restored and relief and rescue workers are able to reach the many remote villages in this Himalayan nation which remains cut off from the rest of the world. In this hour of crisis, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s response has been the correct one. “We will wipe the tears of every Nepali, hold their hand and give every support,” he has assured our neighbour. It is now up to the several government agencies, the armed forces and various civil society outfits engaged in relief and aid operations to ensure that the Prime Minister’s promise is kept in letter and spirit. Although political relations between India and Nepal have had their ups and downs, the two nations have strong cultural, historical, economic and religious ties. India and Nepal share one of the longest open borders between any two countries in the world. Millions of Nepalis live and work in India; tens of thousands of its nationals have borne arms and shed blood for India with the Army. India’s obligation to help this tiny nation recover from this disaster, therefore, transcends demands of diplomacy or geopolitics — it is a profoundly moral one.

Saturday’s 7.9 magnitude quake also served as a grim reminder of the level of underpreparedness in the region to face such eventualities. A significant part of the subcontinent’s landmass falls within the highly active Hindu Kush-Himalayan belt. The 2005 Kashmir earthquake killed nearly 75,000 people across Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. Saturday’s quake was stronger, but was still not the big earthquake — of magnitude 8-9, which geologists have predicted will hit the region. If such an event indeed occurs, the entire region will become a mammoth disaster zone. Poverty and economic compulsions have driven millions of people into migrating into some of the seismically riskiest spots in the world. Kathmandu is no different from the average Indian city — overcrowded, stressed civic and public health infrastructure, little or no urban planning, rampant illegal construction, and a near total absence of appropriate engineering in civic structures to withstand strong quakes. Added to this is the lack of enforcement of even existing (and one suspects, highly inadequate) regulations on safety and engineering standards.

India’s, and indeed, the world’s first response should be providing relief and succour to the affected, followed by speedy reconstruction and rehabilitation. This must be followed by not only a detailed re-evaluation of our own plans and systems, but a coordinated, region-wide effort to improve monitoring, evolve better predictive models, as well as disaster response plans that can be deployed quickly and effectively. As Kashmir and Kathmandu have shown, natural calamities are no respecters of political borders.

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Published on April 27, 2015
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