Earthquake Challenges

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The earthquake yesterday evening that shook Manipur and the Northeast is yet another warning that the government as well as the people must, to use a popular cliché, prepare for the worst but hope for the best. This is particularly so because scientists are of the opinion that the region has not seen the last of these violent movements of the earth’s crust. In fact predictions are, there are worst ones to come yet, and one such predictions, fortunately for us not the Euro-Asian plate that we are sitting on, but the Asia Pacific one, is building up tensions so dangerously that when it is released in the very near future, unleashing an earthquake in the magnitude of 24 on the Richter scale, it may even split the North American continent, destroying most standing buildings and causing the death of more than 40 million people worldwide in monster tsunamis, besides the complete collapse of the international economy. Nobody knows for sure how accurate such predictions will ultimately be, but one thing is certain, earthquakes and the causes for it are established truths now. The science that makes this estimation possible, also has confirmed that the tension that built up when the Indian tectonic plate crashed into the Euro-Asian plate millions of years ago, causing the Himalayas to form and rise to its awesome height, is still far from having been spent and that it will still take a couple of million years before this tension is completely neutralised. In other words, earthquakes are our destiny, and will continue to be so for as far as we can stretch our imagination.

Even without taking an alarmist position then, it would be prudent to be prepared than for catastrophe to take us by surprise. In the recent past, Manipur has seen two big earthquakes that measured in the vicinity of 7 on the Richter Scale. The first one in early January caused numerous buildings, especially government built ones, damaged in varying degrees, and also took six lives besides injuring close to 100. Damages from yesterday’s earthquake thankfully have not been as devastating, but there is absolutely no reason to be complacent. The place has seen two violent shakes, and even if no visible damages have been caused to the concrete buildings, their structural integrity could have suffered serious compromises, so that another shake, or a series of similar shakes, can cause them to come down. In the more spacious Leikais, the threat may not be as much, but in the crowded bazar areas, a few building collapsing would not only take much more casualties, but also can trigger a domino effect, with one collapsed building leaning on and causing the next to collapse too and so on. May such a thing never happen, but such a catastrophe would be of a terrifying dimension.

So what are the preparations the government and the people must set about undertaking immediately? Yes, this will have to be a joint project, and not out of any abstract sense of responsibility, but of direct enlightened vested interest. Indeed, this must be literally treated as a question of life and death by each one of us. A little neglect can cause irreparable and irreversible losses. First the government must encourage owners of concrete buildings to reinforce them further with more steel and cement columns. This must be especially for buildings older than 50 years old, or whatever age our engineers estimate is their safe lifespan. For buildings which are assessed as risky, this must be made mandatory. To make the burden lighter for them, the government could make easy credit facilities available for the purpose. It must also come out with a mandatory construction standard for all future concrete structures, commercial or private. Alongside this, it must also activate its engineering departments to come out with earthquake resistant house designs for every budget. In schools and colleges, as well as offices and other places where large number of people gather daily, the government must make earthquake drills compulsory. It is not just collapsing buildings which kill and injure, but also public panic and stampedes. It must form a task force of experts to come up with a list of dos and don’ts in the event of an earthquake emergency, and publicise these widely. Yes, as and when the transformation process of Imphal to a smart city begins, the planners must also make sure earthquake escape system are in place in crowded market places and residential areas. This features of a smart city, although only for Imphal for the moment, must also be replicated or emulated in future plans for other townships in the state to the extent possible, feasible and affordable.

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