Imphal: Six unnatural deaths, 70 injured on a single day is by all means a tragedy. This despite the desensitisation to violent deaths that insurgency torn places like Manipur has undergone. But the fact is the casualty figure from Monday’s tremblor could have been much worse, if at all this is a consolation.
An earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter Scale, the biggest in 59 years in the state, is something to be scared of, as those of us in Manipur who experienced it early Monday morning, and all who have lived through similar nightmares everywhere in the world, would vouch. It is not just about the terror of sensing the subterranean violence in the manner the ground shakes, but also the low rumbling from below your feet, combined with the nerve racking sounds of window panes shattering, pictures falling to the ground, the scared barking of dogs, and then people rushing out into the open in panic.
Thankfully, the damage was not as extensive as what we saw recently in Nepal. Certainly, there was little to compare with the pictures of horror from there. Although schools were officially declared shut for a week immediately, and a general holiday declared on January 5 and 6 to meet the eventuality of probable killer aftershocks, for most, life returned to normal within a few hours of daybreak. All traces of panic disappeared and the streets in Imphal were as busy as ever, even as people began taking stock of the damage in their neighbourhoods.
There were plenty of partially damaged buildings and some completely damaged ones everywhere in the state, but nothing resembling the disaster-flattened landscape that visuals on TV channels gave the impression of, showing as they usually do only the worst scenes and screening out the normal. Indeed, the number of buildings still standing vastly outnumbered those flattened in Imphal and most other townships.
Interestingly, most of the visibly damaged concrete structures in Imphal were offices and institutions built by the government and its accredited contractors. Hardly any large private house, most of which belong to government functionaries, suffered as much, again exposing the stark difference in the execution of construction work by government officials and the way they look after their private needs. As did the devastating floods in the state a few months ago, when a total of six dams and bridges were washed away by flood waters, this earthquake catastrophe too has once again exposed the corruption so deeply ingrained into the core of the Manipur officialdom.
Of course, private homes too were damaged, but most of these belonged to owners who have had to cut corners while constructing them. Noteworthy again is that communities such as the Nepalis in Sadar Hills, were badly hit, and this probably had to do with house construction styles. Many of the traditional homes of the Nepali community for instance are built of stone blocks or bricks, without any steel reinforcement, and sometimes plastered not with cement but mud.
There are plenty of lessons to learn from this tragedy and these lessons are important, for Manipur like the rest of the northeast, falls in a very seismically prone zone, and today’s earthquake is unlikely to be the last it sees.
The most important of these lessons is that the elements can be merciless to those who are careless. A positive way of looking at today’s tragedy then is to treat is as a wakeup call that all in Manipur and the northeast should be more careful and sensitive to the knowledge that earthquakes will remain a part of their destiny, at least until the tension generated by the collision of the Asian geo-tectonic plate with the Eurasian plate is totally spent, probably a couple of million years from now.
The Manipur government in the meantime has swung into action, as is expected of any administration. It has opened a central control room to receive quake related emergency calls. Control rooms have also been set up in every district headquarters. The telephone numbers of the rapid response medical team of every district have been notified. Essential medicines have been procured and despatched to the districts. Hospitals, both government as well as privately run ones, have been instructed to reserve beds for possible quake victims. School buildings have been kept aside to double up as emergency hospitals if the need arises.
These are emergency measures and are indeed absolutely necessary. However, the government needs to also begin thinking of long term measures, including what to do about corruption. Among the various precautionary measures being planned, let it also think of ways to control the siphoning off of money from public infrastructure construction projects for this amounts to endangering the lives of ordinary people. Let Manipur’s ministers, bureaucrats and technocrats also begin being a little more outwards looking and attend to their responsibility to the public they are supposed to be servants of, and not be so selfishly self-centred, accumulating wealth at the cost of less privileged citizens.
Pradip Phanjoubam is editor of Imphal Free Press