Monday’s quake:A wake-up call

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A decade after the killer October 8 earthquake which killed around 80,000 people across the divided parts of J&K, the state was again struck by another quake of similar scale and in the same month. At around 2.40 pm, when the buildings started swinging and the ground seemed to slip from under the feet, it was a brush with a familiar fear. People frantically rushed out to the open spaces. Women screamed in panic. But mercifully despite the 7.5 quake, J&K was spared the devastation caused by the 2005 temblor, even while more than 300 people have lost their lives in Afghanistan and Pakistan where the quake originated.   In the interiors of the state, there are reports of the houses developing fissures. In downtown Srinagar, many houses  have suffered partial but grievous damage. One reason for J&K escaping largely unscathed is that epicentre of the quake was centred in the mountainous Hindu Kush region, 76km south of Faizabad.

But this hardly detracts from the horrifying nature of the earthquake which lasted for almost two minutes. If anything, it has come as a reminder that Valley falls in zone 5 and thus is prone to intense seismic activity. Kashmir has a long history of earthquakes which have wrought devastation on an epic scale, much like we have also have a history of great floods. One such earthquake hit Valley in 1884. The 2005 quake turned hundreds of villages and towns into mounds of rubble and inflicted deep psychological damage. 

But the worst may be yet to come. Seismic experts have warned of the earthquakes of more devastating intensity, more than 9 on Richter scale. And a quake of such intensity can flatten several thousand square miles. The 2005 quakes, experts contend, had released just 10 percent of the pressure that had accumulated over the years along the fault-lines under Kashmir. Since earthquakes can be neither predicted nor prevented, it is important to put in place the measures to minimize the damage. The most important of such measures is the construction of buildings on set guidelines to make them seismic proof. But in Kashmir these guidelines are generally observed in breach. More than 90 percent of the residential structures are non-engineered and constructed without adherence to the seismic code. Government has been lax in enforcing them, nor have people taken these seriously. This is why we need to make a law to make the construction of buildings  according to the guidelines mandatory. Also, the government has yet to chart a faultline map of J&K to highlight the more vulnerable areas. A few years ago, the data collected by Kashmir University’s Geology and Geography departments reveal that the area west of Jhelum and South of Uri are tectonically most active parts of the Valley.

Monday’s earthquake is thus a wake-up call. The 2005 temblor had been forgotten, both by the government and the people, its memory pushed further into background by the unprecedented floods last year. It is time the state government takes on board J&K’s vulnerability to natural calamities  and prepares a short and long term plan to address them. It is a tragedy that the successive governments haven’t so far put together the robust institutional response mechanisms for an earthquake or a flood.  We cannot afford any further delay.

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