It is Nepal’s tragedy but India’s grief
When the earthquake struck at noon on Saturday, severe as it was (five on the Richter scale, we were later informed), I found myself cursing the developer who had sold us the apartment with the promise that our gated community was beyond the faultline that runs through India’s National Capital Region.
The tremors lasted for a long while, longer than the usual quakes that periodically shake and stir, ever so gently, Delhi, Gurgaon and Noida. Framed pictures and paintings rattled on the walls; the ceiling fans swung wildly.
I was reminded of the terrible Tehri earthquake of October 1991, weeks after relocating to Delhi from Kolkata: Chunks of plaster fell off the walls of the poorly constructed apartment we had hired. Since then we had laughed off the ‘mild tremors’, as media calls them, that visit the National Capital Region. We lived on the faultline and there was nothing one could do to stop the ground from shifting occasionally.
That was till we moved further away from Yamuna, almost deep into western Uttar Pradesh. We were repeatedly assured this was not within the seismic zone. Hence the surprise and annoyance when the house shook violently on Saturday morning. Muttering imprecations, we left our apartment only to realise the trembling was over. Minutes later, social media was flooded with messages from far and wide.
It was then one realised the earthquake had originated somewhere else and we had felt the ripple effects. The US Geological Survey’s website, which is the first to track and report earthquakes, informed us that the epicentre was off Pokhara in Nepal, a short distance from Kathmandu. Initial reports pegged the earthquake’s intensity at 7.5, it was later revised to 7.8, which is huge. More worrisomely, the earthquake had occurred at a shallow depth of 9.3 miles.
Within minutes, thanks to social media, there was a flood of information on the devastating impact of the earthquake in Kathmandu Valley. The first bad news tweet came from former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, with a picture of a flattened homestead. After that the proverbial floodgates burst open. Pictures showed how the ground had split open in and around Kathmandu.
Pictures of roads with yawning cracks did not quite tell the story of the death and destruction in Nepal though. The real story, horrific and mind-numbing, emerged along with pictures of ancient temples and other heritage monuments reduced to rubble. Durbar Square looked as if it had been bombed. What the Maobadis could not achieve, nature’s fury had.
The tragic remains of the ancient Darahara Tower, built by Nepal’s royal family as a watchtower in the 1800s, symbolised the death and destruction in Kathmandu valley. By Saturday evening, the death toll hovered at the 700 mark; it is bound to rise as reports come in from far-flung places. Historic monuments reduced to rubble will remain the leitmotif of Saturday’s disaster. But there’s more to the tragedy – hundreds, if not thousands, of homes destroyed, lives lost and women widowed, children orphaned.
In desperately poor countries disasters leave a never ending trail of misery. With few resources, Nepal will be hardpressed to deal with the situation. This is where India comes in. We should pull out all stops and rush to Nepal’s aid. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown exemplary speed in summoning a meeting of senior officials and Ministers to get a rescue and relief mission going. Teams have been despatched. More men and material are on standby.
But this is going to be a long mission. At the moment, the immediate concerns are threefold. First, rescue all survivors, including those still trapped in the rubble. Two, provide relief by way of food, water and temporary shelter. Three, prevent the outbreak of diseases. India has the resources and skills to undertake all three tasks.
Once the initial work is done and assessments made, India should offer full assistance for reconstruction. Once again, we have both resources and expertise to undertake this herculean task. Nepal is closest to India culturally and civilisationally. A border separates the two countries but there is nothing that separates the two peoples. This is Nepal’s hour of grief, so also it is India’s hour of grief.
India’s swift and wholehearted involvement is also necessary to prevent China from trying to use the tragedy to its advantage. The earthquake has devastated large parts of Tibet. Let China demonstrate its commitment to Tibet’s welfare by focussing on relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction in Lhasa and elsewhere.