Sunday, January 02, 2005

Was it a human failure?

ON THE fateful morning of Sunday, December 26, one was still sleeping when the mild tremors shook Chennai. Within 15 minutes the telephone was ringing and relatives and friends wanted to know if we too had felt the tremors. With the havoc caused by the earthquake in Kutch in 2001 still fresh in their memory, some of them — including the neighbours — had come out of their homes and on to the road.

Within an hour, many TV channels had the news that the epicentre of the quake, measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale, lay in the ocean. Immediately, my husband, an instruments engineer who keenly follows all things meteorological, and my 15-year-old son started discussing the possibility of tsunami waves developing. The latter was excitedly telling us how a fellow student in his school had just a few days earlier made a presentation on tsunamis and the devastation they can cause. He said she had added that her biggest fear was that, God forbid, tsunami waves might attack India.

Ominous words, those. But this column is not about that. It is about how ordinary citizens were talking about the possibility of tsunami waves striking, not our own coast but the coast near Indonesia, because at that point and with our limited knowledge the threat seemed rather far away. However, India's scientific community, perceived to be among the very best in the world, and particularly scientists trained to forecast weather and natural disasters, seem to have let the nation down.

Over the last two days, we have been told about how because tsunami waves are prone to hit the Pacific more than the Indian Ocean, and because the warning systems cost a lot of money, we do not have a warning system in place.

While it has now been decided, and rightly, to install sea floor pressure recording systems in the Indian Ocean to give us some advance warning of such a disaster, have we become so dependent on technology and gadgetry that the human brain has taken second place in our scheme of things?

We might not have had the warning systems in place, but what about the colossal knowledge base that we as a country possess? And, surely, at least a tiny bit of our knowledge capital was watching television channels that morning or was itself present in the regions that felt the tremors. And this ought to have been incentive enough for anybody to switch on the television or call friends or relatives to find out what's happening.

Even if the antenna of one alert person in a responsible position at a scientific facility in India had gone up, after finding that an earthquake — or, rather, sea quake — of that intensity had its epicentre in the waters of the sea so many precious lives could have been saved. He/she could have discussed such a threat with a colleague and alerted the governments or their own colleagues in the coastal cities of Chennai or Pondicherry, and, most of all, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, much closer to the epicentre and, owing to their geographic position, more vulnerable. After all, ordinary citizens in Chennai, even the kids playing cricket on the beach, noticed how much the sea had receded that fateful Sunday morning.

As a scientist interviewed by BBC kept pointing out, before a tsunami wave strikes, typically, the sea pulls back, leaving dead fish on the shores. This is an awesome sight that triggers people's curiosity and they invariably move closer to the shore, trying to investigate what is happening. And then, before they know what hits them, tsunami waves measuring few metres high leap out of the sea and wash them away.

What a pity that while my friend's son, who lives near the coast in Chennai, noticed that morning from his terrace how the sea had receded, nobody who had the vital knowledge to connect this observation with the danger that awaited the coastal region, noticed this at any point along the entire south-eastern coast that was eventually devastated by tsunami waves measuring up to 10 metres. These thoughts are not being voiced to blame anybody. And, yes, all this is wisdom after the event. But just imagine, in a State like Tamil Nadu; in a Chennai or Nagapattinam or Cuddalore, what a life-and-death difference could have been made by public warning systems asking people to get away from the coast.

At Chennai's Marina beach, just three patrol jeeps asking people to vacate the beach, administration officials quickly barricading the area from human presence, and loudspeakers warning people of the potential danger — such simple precautions would have saved the lives of children playing cricket on the beach, the morning walkers, the mother and her little daughter who were in Chennai on a vacation and had gone to the beach to play in the sea waters.

The nation might not have woken up on Tuesday morning to see newspaper pictures of little children lying in oversized graves in Nagapattinam and, worse still, a mass grave of tiny bodies. Even though the tragedy could not have been averted altogether, thousands of precious lives could have been saved, and we would not have felt such a sense of shame over the collective failure of the tremendous knowledge base in this country.

Whether it is natural disasters or medical emergencies, it is precious minutes that count and make the difference between life and death. Those precious minutes were squandered away by ignorant bliss.

The unfortunate fact is that even with routine things such as flood warning systems in place, precious lives continue to be lost in this country during disasters such as cyclones and floods.

During rare stock-taking exercises like these, we have to admit that somewhere there is both carelessness and callousness in our administrative mechanisms, which fail to act quickly and efficiently when it comes to preventive action to minimise loss of lives.

We may boast of many things — our strong democracy that has survived the most despotic politicians, a vibrant economy, an IT industry that is the envy of the world, or a knowledge base that is formidable.
But one awaits the day when we will boast of a collective sensitivity that considers our one billion plus population, including the poor and the unprivileged, not a liability but an asset — human capital of the extraordinary variety that deserves to be nurtured and as zealously guarded as Corporate India's bottomline.

The clock cannot be turned back but one hopes history will hold vital lessons for the future.

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Source:The Hindu

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