When India was hit by the tsunami, it was in uncharted territory. The last one had occurred in 1945 and even general knowledge, leave aside scientific research, was hard to come by. The scientific establishment reacted fast to set in place warning systems.
The government drew up a plan last year that envisaged putting in place an indigenous tsunami warning system by September 2007. A prerequisite to doing this was upgrading its nearly moribund seismic stations so that they could transmit seismic data to a central location with the briefest of time-lags. Then would come deep-ocean sensors which detect any activity on the ocean bed. The third element in the trinity would be gauges that would record tides along the coast to monitor surface manifestations of subterranean activity.
The progress hasn't been bad. The seismic monitoring time-lag is down from 40 to 15 minutes. The currently analog tide gauges are being replaced with digital versions which can transfer data instantaneously to a central location through satellites -- the time-frame as of now is three months. The sensors will be the last to fall into place.
"We already have a preliminary tsunami warning system in place based on seismic recordings," says V S Ramamurthi, secretary, department of science and technology. But come September a couple of years from now, there is room for optimism that if a tsunami strikes, alarm bells will jangle early enough for preventive measures to prevent loss of lives, believes R K Sharma of the department of ocean development, who is coordinating the setting up of this composite system.
Whether or not this optimism will be borne out remains to be seen, but certainly for the moment the government seems to be banking on results. It did not join an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system planned under the aegis of the un. Officials said other countries would be welcome to join the Indian system and India would be only too happy to help countries in the region in the event of an impending tsunami.
But that was not where New Delhi drew the line. It politely told the us that it would not allow it direct access to the seismic data recorded by its networks, but would pass them on after processing them. The us was not amused.
Even if the warning system debuts at the right time, endorsing such shows of strength, a concern remains:what's in it for us, will satellites and gizmos translate into action when the time comes, so that lives are not needlessly lost?
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