Swift response to disasters vital

A pre-dawn earthquake measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale that rocked the North-East India on Monday – the quake’s epicentre was in Tamenglong in Manipur – has brought into focus again India’s unsatisfactory disaster management preparedness. Manipur escaped major loss in terms of human lives – eight people have been killed in the quake –because it is a sparsely populated area perhaps. However, the fact that Tamenglong and surrounding areas are geographically remote and not easily accessible because of the difficult terrain will complicate rescue operations. Additionally, given the shoddy state of infrastructure in the North-East, rescue teams are not able to reach the quake-hit areas. In many of these areas, buildings have been reduced to rubble and people may be trapped in the debris. There is a danger, therefore, of the death toll rising if rescue and relief operations do not speed up. Understandably, Manipuris are in a state of shock and anger is mounting over the slow pace of relief operations and lack of co-ordination between various agencies.

Seismic experts are warning that earthquakes of a magnitude of 8.2 or more on the Richter scale are set to hit the Himalayan region soon. The North-East lies in seismic zone 5, which is the most prone to quakes. Over the past century, the region has been rocked by around 18 major earthquakes, with one in 1950 that hit the Assam-Arunachal-Tibet area even changing the course of River Brahmaputra. The North-East is routinely hit by floods, landslides and droughts. Hence, its physical, economic and social infrastructure to survive natural disasters is rather weak. Earthquakes cannot be predicted. But we can take steps to mitigate its impact and improve society’s capacity to recover quickly from the destruction that follows in its wake. Across India, including in Zone-5 areas, multi-storied buildings are mushrooming. These are major death traps as they crumble during a quake and its aftershocks, trapping people in the debris. Besides, the government plans to construct hundreds of hydropower dams in the region. These could turn even a minor quake into a catastrophe.

Several state governments have not taken seriously the National Disaster Management Authority’s call to set up their own Disaster Response Forces. Instead, they summon the National Disaster Response Force. This delays prompt action, which is so crucial when
disaster strikes. It is important that states wake up to the importance of local response teams in dealing with disasters. Additionally, public awareness on responding to quakes is vital. This can improve people’s capacity to survive natural disasters and move to safety.
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