Six unnatural deaths, 70 injured on a single day is by all means a tragedy. This despite the de-sensitisation to violent deaths that insurgency torn places like Manipur has undergone. The casualty figure with the January 4 shocker earthquake could have been much higher if that is any consolation.
An earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter Scale, the biggest in 59 years in the state, is surely something to be scared of, as those of us in Manipur who experienced it on the early morning of Monday, and all else who have lived 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, wall hangings falling to the ground, scared barking of dogs, and then people rushing out into the open in panic.
Thankfully, the damages this time were not as extensive, at least there were little to compare with, when we recall the pictures of horror recently seen in Nepal. Although schools were officially declared shut for a week immediately, and a general holiday declared on January 5 and 6 to meet any 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 damages around their town and the state.
There were plenty of partially damaged buildings and some completely damaged ones everywhere in the state, but nothing to give a sense of 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 outnumbered overwhelmingly those flattened in Imphal and most other townships.
Quite interestingly, most of the visibly damaged concrete structures in Imphal were government offices and institutions built by the government and its accredited contractors. Few affluent private homes, most belonging to government functionaries again, suffered as much, again exposing the stark difference in the execution of public work by the 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.
This is not to say that there were no private homes damaged, but most of these belonged to owners who have had to cut corners while constructing them. Communities such as the Nepalis in Sadar Hills, were badly hit, and this probably also 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 were plenty of partially damaged buildings and some completely damaged ones everywhere in the state, but nothing to give a sense of 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.
Plenty of lessons to be learned 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 one 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 for aeons, at least until the tension generated by the collision of the 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 government. It has opened a central control room to receive any quake related emergency calls. Control rooms have also been set up by respective District Collectors (DCs) in every district headquarter. Telephone numbers of rapid response medical team of every district have been notified. Essential medicines have been procured and despatched to the districts. Hospitals, both of the government as well as privately run ones have been instructed to reserve beds for possible quake victims. School buildings have been kept aside to couple up as emergency hospitals if the need arises. Schools and colleges have been shut for a week. General holidays have been declared on January 5 and 6. These are emergency measures and indeed absolutely necessary.
However, the government needs to also begin thinking long term measures. One of these returns the debate to the question of corruption. Among many other precautionary measures it surely would be planning, let it also think of ways to control siphoning off 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 the less fortunate public.
(The writer is editor of Imphal Free Press)