Shaken, but not stirred

Despite several high intensity earthquakes, India is yet to chalk out a seismic policy

By Arun Bapat
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

-- (Credit: Rustam Vania / cse)INDIA is one of the most seismically active countries in the world. The earthquake that hit Assam on June 12,1897, had a magnitude of 8.7 on the Richter scale. Known as the Great Assam Earthquake, it is still the highest-intensity tremor ever recorded in the world. It was only more than 60 years later, in May 1960, that the Chilean earthquake equalled its record.

In seismological lexicon, earthquakes of a magnitude of 8.0 and above are considered as destructive. India has experienced four such "destructive" tremors in the 20th century. These are:
8.25 in Kangra on April 4,1905;
8.25 in Bihar on January 15, 1934;
8.1 in Andaman on June 26,1941; and
8.6 in Assam on August 15, 1950,

Besides, the country has experienced three seismic contingencies of moderate magnitude - 6.0 to 6.5 on the Richter scale - during the last decade, namely:
6.5 in Bihar on August 20,1988;
6.5 in Uttarkashi on October 21, 1991; and
6.2 inLatur (Killari) on September 30,1993

The death toll in the Latur earthquake, about 10,000, equalled the toll from the first two earthquakes put together.

India has more than 200 universities, several scientific lab oratories under the umbrage of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Defence Research and Development Organisation and Department of Science and Technology, and about a hundred-odd seismic observatories under the Indian Meteorological Department. But, sadly, the country is yet to formulate a seismic policy. The science and technology departments dealing with seismic events project a magnified image of their institute. This unhealthy competition gives rise to contronoi stirre versies regarding the magnitude of a seismic event, location of its epicentre and measurement of certain parameters.

A seminar, conference or a workshop is held within a few months of the event. This gives the researchers very little time to present a detailed report. At such meetings, the administrative officials assure that funds will not be a problem for seismological research. However, the grants are rarely received in hill and on time by the concerned institute. Post-seismic situations are highly complex. And every earthquake poses a different set of problems which the administrative officials find hard to tackle. After the disastrous Latur earthquake, for instance, the concerned authorities had to make arrangements for truckloads of wood from Chandpur, about 300 kilometres from Latur, to cremate the more than 10,000 bodies.

It is important for a highly seismic country like India to make determined efforts in formulating a national policy and to impart "earthquake education". For instance, the telephone directory in California, a region prone to frequent earthquakes, details the dos and don'ts during an earthquake for the benefit of the common man. Students need to be educated about earthquakes. Administrative officials dealing with seismic events should undergo suitable training to handle the disaster. And decision-makers should be made conversant with the problems of seismic contingencies. The Bureau of Indian Standards' seismic code should be observed by all institutes and authorities concerned.

There are several periodically active "seismic hot spots" in the Himalaya. Besides, there are a few other locations in peninsular India too. Formulation of a seismic policy would help in hazard reduction and disaster management.

---Arun Bapat is former chief research officer, earthquake engineering research division, Central Water and Power Research Station, Pune.

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