Kashmir sitting on a powder keg


Views from Srinagar

Sohail Ahmad

TWELVE years have passed since the deadly October 8, 2005 earthquake shook the valley. I remember the day vividly. It was Saturday and the earthquake struck at 09:20 am. The earthquake was classified as “major” by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) with a magnitude of 7.6. The epicenter was about 19 km northeast of Muzaffarabad with the hypocenter located at a depth of 26 km below the surface. The earthquake caused widespread destruction in northern Pakistan, parts of Afghanistan and northern India. The worst hit areas were Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), and western and southern parts of Kashmir valley.
Most of the casualties were reported in Pakistan. As of November 8, the Pakistani government’s official toll was 87,350. Some estimated the death toll to be well over 100,000. Over 1800 people died while 4500 were injured in J&K. As it was a normal school day in the region, most students were at schools when the earthquake struck. Many were buried under collapsed school buildings. Many people were also trapped in their homes and because it was Ramadan (Muslim holy month of fasting), most people were taking a nap after their pre-dawn meal and did not have time to escape during the quake. Entire towns and villages were completely wiped out in Northern Pakistan with other surrounding areas also suffering severe damage.
In Kashmir, 1500 houses were destroyed in Uri alone. About 90 percent of the families living in the town, which has a population of 30,000, were affected by the quake. More than 1,100 houses were flattened across the state. Most of the affected areas were in the mountainous regions and access was impeded by landslides that blocked the roads. An estimated 3.3 million were left homeless in Pakistan.
Over the years, Kashmir has been experiencing light to moderate intensity earthquakes. But the tremors don’t seem to be strong enough to wake up the government from its deep slumber. After the devastating quake of October 8, 2005, one would have expected a more serious approach from the government as far as disaster preparedness is concerned. However, they don’t seem to have learnt the lessons from the earlier tragedies. The authorities also seem unmoved by the warning sounded by the experts about a more devastating quake than the one witnessed in 2005, which they say has released just 10 percent of the pressure accumulated over the years along the fault line under the valley. According to the National Building Code of India, Kashmir falls in Seismic Zone V, the highest risk zone prone to earthquakes measuring more than 9 on the Richter Scale. An earthquake of such intensity can flatten several thousand miles.
Government of India under its Urban Earthquake Vulnerability Reduction Project has issued guidelines for construction of all new buildings in Seismic Zone V. However, the government has failed to enforce the guidelines to ensure quake-resistant constructions. The 2005 earthquake, according to the researchers, has only compounded the threat. It has resulted in building up of more pressure along the fault lines running through Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. Even as it is not possible to avert natural disasters like earthquakes, the reactionary approach of successive governments has meant that they are ill-prepared to at least minimize the damage. To promote construction of quake-resistant houses, the state government set up the State Disaster Management Cell in 2006. However, we still lag behind as far as preparedness is concerned be it in terms of implementation or operational capacities. In the name of disaster preparedness, the state has some 600 odd men, 12 boats and grossly inadequate life-saving paraphernalia. Ironically, as per some media reports, the strength of the state disaster response force (SDRF) has been reduced by about 150 men following retirement of its personnel. The government has failed to fill up these vacant posts. Besides, the recruitment process for another 200 positions, advertised by the SDRF five years back, also remains in limbo.
Lack of political will and an attitude of indifference from people in general adds to the problem. The authorities have also not been able to make use of the researches of scientists for developing strategies to prevent fatalities during the disasters. In this backdrop, it is imperative for the state administration to pull the socks. To begin with it should establish effective early warning systems in the light of National Disaster Management Act in 2005.
It should also take up construction of emergency shelters at the earliest. Decentralisation of disaster management plans and disaster education to increase public awareness is also crucial for successful implementation of the disaster management guidelines. Strong political will and public cooperation are also must for success of any such plans. There is an urgent need for proactive and effective disaster management measures to be put in place lest nature’s fury catches us unawares again.

—Courtesy: RK.
[writer: Suhail@risingkashmir.com]