Sunday, October 2, 2011

Sikkim Earthquake, 18 September 2011

On Sunday, just when I had arrived, there was an earthquake. It didn’t really register with me. Delhi shook gently, enough for many others to notice, but I was jetlagged and went to sleep. My colleague Gus thought he was suddenly feeling the symptoms of old age as dizziness set in and he had to sit down on the sofa, he told me afterwards.

What had taken place was an earthquake with an epicentre in Sikkim, hundreds of kilometres away from the national capital region. The quake hit the Sikkim-Nepal border area at 18:10 hours near the boundary between India and Eurasia plates. It was 6.8 on the Richter Scale and, given the style of construction and rough hilly terrain, it would turn out to be the most destructive earthquake to hit India in ten years. People rushed out of the houses that started to collapse. In addition, there were reports of extensive landslides and downed power lines. “Tremors were felt between 30 seconds to one minute in some parts of Sikkim, including Gangtok,” the State capital, said Shalesh Nayak, Secretary in the Indian Earth Sciences Ministry, said according to The Times of India (19 September 2011). Nearly everyone in Sikkim and Darjeeling spent Sunday night in the open as aftershocks triggered fears of a second wave of destruction.

Sikkim is a Himalayan state in the Indian northeast, bordered by Nepal to the west, Tibet (China) to the north and Bhutan to the east. Its southern border is with the Indian state of West Bengal. The mountainous State is quite sparsely populated—according to the latest 2001 census, the total population was only 540,000 people—and only 11% of the people live in urban areas. “Sikkim is sheer magic,” gushes the State’s official website. “This is not just the most beautiful place in the world but cleanest and safest too,” it continues. This pristine idyll was shattered by the quake.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called Sikkim’s Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling, who reportedly described the damage as serious. Early reports confirmed 15 dead in Sikkim and across the border in Nepal, but the death toll would keep on rising. By the following Saturday, 24th of September, there were reportedly 75 dead and more than 61,000 left homeless in Sikkim alone. In addition, 10 people were reported dead in Bengal and 7 in Bihar. And the rescue crews had not yet reached the most remote areas due to landslides and heavy rains.

On Tuesday, 20 September, The Times reported that virtually nothing was left intact on the 100 km long road connecting Gangtok to Chungthang, and that roads and bridges between Meeli and Namchi in south Sikkim and Rawangala in west Sikkim had been severely damaged. All of this hampered rescue operations.

Rumtek, a major Buddhist monastery, located at an elevation of 1,768 metres some 24 kilomters from Gangtok, was badly damaged, leaving some 400 monks without shelter. A team of ten South African engineers were in the Teesta River area working together with the locals to develop a hydroelectric scheme. Two of the men had been inside a tunnel when the quake took place. They were barely able to escape as a major crack developed and the tunnel was suddenly flooded with water from the river. These kinds of stories catch the eye as they find themselves into the newspapers. Inevitably, rumours would emerge that the Teesta hydroelectric project was somehow connected to the earthquake. Needless to say, such rumours are obviously baseless.

The official response to the disaster was quite rapid and effective, it would seem. The Government of India immediately declared Sikkim a disaster area and promised funds for reconstruction and recovery. Prime Minister Singh would visit the quake stricken areas in Sikkim on 29 September 2011. Nearly 6,000 Army and paramilitary forces personnel were deployed without delay. However, their work was hampered by the landslides and it took days for the troops to reach Mangan, the quake’s epicentre, and nearby areas of north and west Sikkim, where the heaviest damage had been reported. The rescue convoys were stuck at various locations with fallen trees, downed power lines and landslides. It was reported that two young Army men and a junior engineer had also been killed.

By Monday, Army helicopters started dropping food and supplies to people in the worst affected areas. They also started evacuating people to safety. Apart from the general destruction and lost homes caused by earthquakes, death often comes afterwards from diseases that spread when people must stay in the open and without adequate food, clean water or sanitation.

On Wednesday (21 September 2011) The Times ran an article about how Dipak Ghosh at Jadavpur University had detected abnormalities that could presage a major earthquake. The scientist runs a solid-state nuclear track detector that he has embedded 70 cm underground besides the Faculty Club. As he monitored the devise 9 days before the earthquake, he noticed abnormal fluctuations in radon gas emissions from below. Should he have reported this to warn authorities of the impending danger? This would have been risky, as earthquake prediction is far from an exact science. In 2009 when a 6.3 magnitude quake destroyed the medieval city of l’Aquila in the Abruzzo region of Italy, a local scientist Giampaolo Giuliani had recorded similar forewarnings from his four radometers in the area. He however was under injunction barring him from reporting the monitoring data, as officials claimed that such predictions would spread unwarranted panic. In that quake, 308 people including 20 children died, 1,500 were injured and perhaps 80,000 left homeless.

Ghosh, Director of the Biren Roy Research Laboratory for Radioactivity and Earthquake Studies at Jadavpur University, was well aware of the criticism that Giuliani had had to face around his earthquake predictions. “It is not so easy. I am into this research monitoring soil radon since 2006,” he told The Times. “What I gathered from the data is that there is a direct correlation between the soil radon anomaly within 1,000 kilometres from the measuring site, and for intensity above 4 in the Richter scale. They occur 7-15 days before an earthquake with few exceptions,” said Ghosh, comparing earthquake prediction based on radon with a doctor performing an ECG on patient, which would indicate that the person is at risk of a heart attack but would not be able to predict its timing. Earthquake forecasting using radon monitoring remains controversial amongst the scientific community.

On Thursday, when many people had slowly started returning home—or whatever was left of it—for shelter from the continued rain, an aftershock of 3.9 shook Gangtok at 22:30 sending people scurrying out into the open. During the same evening, a 4.8 magnitude quake, with its epicentre in Myanmar, was felt in parts of Meghalaya, Manipur, Tripura and Mizoram in northeast India, but there were no reports of casualties according to Mail Today (23 September 2011).

As always, it is the regular people, poor folks eking out a living in the harsh environment where flat agricultural land is hard to come by and where it has been constructed on elaborate terraces for generations, that are most affected by disasters such as this. These are the people who lost family members amongst the dead.

As I left Delhi on Saturday night, it was reported that fresh landslides in Langchun in the rain-soaked northern Sikkim were again stopping rescuers from reaching remote villages. The landslides and the aftershocks would continue for the days and weeks to come. Casualty figures from Sikkim’s neighbours confirmed 6 dead in Nepal and 7 in Tibet; 2,322 and 2,960 buildings, respectively, were completely destroyed in these states. On 28 September 2011, authorities downgraded the casualty estimates in Sikkim from 77 to 60 following verification of double counting and locating people who had been listed as missing in the confusion of the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. This at least was good news.

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