Monday, April 27, 2015

Deb Mukharji - A Himalayan lesson, and about time

Around 50 million years ago, the Indian plate inched its way across primeval oceans and collided with the Eurasian plate. It was a cataclysmic event that influences our lives even today. As the Indian plate continues to thrust northwards against a resisting Eurasian plate, unimaginable quantities of energy are compressed and released periodically around the fault line extending from Ladakh to Arunachal. The earth heaves in earthquakes big and small. A major such earthquake exploded on Nepal shortly before noon on April 25, 2015.

We were at the arrival lounge of Tribhuvan airport, Kathmandu, waiting for baggage clearance, on our way to Syabru Beansi on the Bhote Kosi, the base for our trek to Kyangin Gompa in the upper reaches of the Langtang. Suddenly, the room rocked violently and continued to do so in jerky, uncoordinated motions. A muted roar seemed to emerge from somewhere. All there fled to the safety of the tarmac. Looking north we could see a scar being formed on the upper part of the Shivpuri hills as a section of the mountain split in a plume of dust. My memory of the drive from the airport would be a bride bedecked in finery sitting by the roadside with her friends, looking at the remains of a restaurant where her wedding reception would now not take place.

A major earthquake in Nepal has been overdue. Those who know about these things had predicted that the accumulated energies underground would seek release about every 75 years. The last major quake that devastated Nepal and north Bihar took place in 1934, eighty-one years ago. It needs to be remembered, though, that the 1934 quake, at 8.2 on the Richter scale, had exponentially more destructive power than Saturday's at 7.8 (or 7.9).

Kathmandu was believed by concerned citizens to be extremely vulnerable to a major earthquake and there had been dire predictions. Yet, Kathmandu has stood up remarkably well to the quake, with major damage being reported from the heritage sites. In a city of millions with unplanned growth over the past couple of decades, this, so far, is good. There are reports of the citizenry being actively engaged in relief and rescue. This is greatly commendable, particularly as looting in such circumstances is known in other parts of the world.

At the same time, one must hope that the authorities would take steps to ensure better safety measures to ameliorate the effects of any future large quake. The present casualty figure stands at over 2,000, mostly in the Valley. It is, however, clear that there is no detailed knowledge as yet of the death and destruction in remote areas. Villages and habitations at the epicentre in the Gorkha region of Nepal, to the west of the capital, are believed to be destroyed. Langtang village (3,420m), a large habitation on our trekking route, is reported to be buried under avalanches.

Over the weeks there will be fuller understanding of the damage caused. With roads and bridges damaged, infrastructure affected, trekking routes uncertain, Nepal would need Herculean efforts to overcome the trauma. Providing relief to remote areas, whose sufferings are gradually beginning to emerge, would require a united political commitment. Nepal would need unstinted support from the international community. The Indian government is to be commended for its instant assistance.

An earthquake is a natural phenomenon that can neither be predicted with accuracy, nor be prevented. The best one can do is ensure standards of construction that can resist nature's fury, as has been shown by Japan and other countries. In the Himalaya it is not only earthquakes that are a matter for concern. The extremely sensitive eco-system of a young mountain requires careful nurturing and not mindless exploitation of its riches, be it for its resources or for tourism. This is where we, in India, seem to be seriously faltering.

Over the past years there have been warning signals. The June 2013 Uttarakhand deluge, where the thousands who perished remain uncounted, cautioned that unrestricted tourism, religious or otherwise, was not sustainable. Yet neither the state nor the central government has shown any understanding of how much the fragile ecology of the Himalaya would be able to bear. The unrestricted flow of visitors leads inevitably to unsafe and polluting constructions without any checks. Without going into the debate on the construction of dams or roads, it is a glaring fact that very often these are undertaken without observing the rules and constraints that do exist.

Millions of tonnes of debris arising in these ventures are simply dumped into rivers, including holy ones, with obvious consequences. Blasting of explosives does not adhere to the rules on distances or timing. Both private contractors and government agencies are guilty of flagrant and continuing violations. It is not at all clear whether the decision-making apparatus of the government consults existing scientific research organisations, e.g. the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology or others, before arriving at decisions.

Today, "development" is becoming equated with the pouring of concrete in bizarre projects in pristine Himalayan villages. Politicians who either extol our traditional spiritual heritage or seek spiritual comfort in Himalayan shrines would do well to consider their responsibility towards the Himalaya. The Nepal earthquake was not of man's making. But it is a reminder to all nations that benefit from the largesse of the Himalaya of their responsibility to protect, preserve and conserve this vital chain of mountains.

Deb Mukharji is former ambassador to Nepal and author of Magic of Nepal