Science after the tsunami

  • 30/01/2005

Four years ago, this magazine's editor, environmentalist Anil Agarwal, wrote a scathing comment after the Bhuj earthquake: "Disasters come and go but our government has become a permanent disaster". While we are vulnerable to natural disasters - cyclones, earthquakes, floods or droughts, and now the tsunami - these temporary and preventable disasters turn into massive calamities because of the "perpetual disaster that this country's governance system has come to represent".

Why? Because earthquakes do not kill, the buildings do. Anil put the question: why, then, do we not build, in areas identified as seismic, earthquake-resistant structures? After all, traditional architecture took into account a region's vulnerability and so designed buildings that could withstand tremors. "Why then does the proud, loudmouth, supposedly competent, modern India fail to build this simple knowledge into its daily reality?"

We need to ask this question again today, even as we confront another appalling human tragedy. There will be another natural disaster, sooner or later. Thus what we do today will lessen the pain and suffering of those affected tomorrow. If we do not, it can only mean we are wilfully negligent. And after the Orissa cyclone, Bhuj and now the tsunami - 3 natural disasters in 5 years - even criminally so.

Disaster management demands, firstly, scientific knowledge to understand and map our vulnerability. It is always easy for the scientific establishment, post-disaster, to talk about a new gizmo. But this same establishment is never held accountable for what we have already invested. After all, earthquake science is not new. Similarly, ocean science has become established scientific jargon for years now. What we must understand is that we can never have an effective disaster surveillance system, without strong, capable and accountable scientific institutions and people to head them.

Secondly, understand that instrumentation - however important, however sophisticated - will not save lives. Science can merely help us predict natural disasters, only warn us about our vulnerability. The challenge is to use this scientific knowledge for policy and implementation.

I repeat: earthquakes, Anil said, do not kill. Buildings do. Therefore, once we understand the vulnerability of seismic areas, we have to use this knowledge to ensure that structures that come up are earthquake resistance. But this is precisely where we completely fail. Even after the devastating Bhuj earthquake, contractors are merrily abusing the building requirements for earthquake-prone regions, whether Assam or Delhi. We do not need new science to teach us this. But what we need is to ensure government agencies strictly regulate, so ensuring structures are built taking into account building codes.

But that is asking for too much from our mentally deficient government agencies. Safety is always an afterthought. It is a luxury we cannot afford, they believe. Until a disaster strikes. Then we beat our chests; "temporarily" shifting gears, we earnestly discuss the need for disaster management.

The science and technology minister Kapil Sibal can today become the new hero of his fuddy-duddy scientific establishment by buying them some new toys, but he must remember that, ultimately, the warning system must be timely and effective. In other words, the human beings that operate this system must respond quickly, so that information can be transmitted upwards to decision-makers and downwards to people, in the affected zones, moving literally at the speed of light. Not at the speed of death the fossilised systems of bureaucratic India move.

Similarly, the warning system will only work to lessen the vulnerability of future tsunamis if the country is mindful about planning for coastal zones. This is a region industry, mining and hoteliers hanker for. They want to undercut its protection as an ecologically fragile zone, in the name of growth. But this same development will increase its vulnerability. It will make the next tsunami, or cyclone - super or not so super - even more devastating. What good will Sibal's new toys do then?

Fourthly, disaster management is about relief and rehabilitation. This is where the Indian state and its people show their best side. In the end, however difficult or heart-wrenching the post-disaster situation may be, we are capable of responding to immediate urgencies. Where we fail, totally and absolutely, is in building the security for the future. We are a band-aid society at best.

Anil had argued that for future disaster management, we must accept that we have emasculated the scientific institutions responsible for science in our daily lives. Only those scientists who have worked on bombastic science or on defence-related science are recognised in the system today, he said. Science was absent from our decision making, because these rock-star scientists were mindless about the decision that needed to be taken.

Ultimately, this is the natural tragedy of a real disaster. Perhaps it is time India's prime ministers stopped paying annual homage to that obsolescence called the Indian Science Congress which has just ended this fortnight, reminding us how ritualistic science has become, how isolated and so totally removed from reality. Certainly it is time to begin anew. It is four years since Anil passionately asked for a new technological vision and technical competence to regulate and protect public interest. It is three years since he left us. But little has changed. So let me repeat what he said, in conclusion: "If we do not change our governance system, we will only end up shedding crocodile tears after every disaster".

- Sunita Narain

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