January 29, 2001


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Dilip D'Souza

Most Valuable Commodity

At least we haven't -- yet -- heard explanations like we did after the Orissa cyclone. That's when at least one half-baked Christian wrote to the papers to say the cyclone was God's punishment inflicted on Orissa for the brutal murder of Graham Staines earlier that year. He was matched by at least one half-baked Hindu whose letter to the editor said the cyclone was divine retribution on Orissa because the state's then CM, one Gamang, cast the one famous vote that threw Vajpayee's "Hindu" government out of office in Delhi.

We haven't yet heard the Gujarat earthquake accounted for in those terms, and I say, in all seriousness, thank someone for that. Things are tragic enough in Gujarat without complicating matters even more by invoking divine revenge. But what's far worse than that, the very notion of this divine revenge absolves many of us of earthly responsibilities we must bear: for such crimes as neglect, corruption and indifference that made tragedy in Gujarat far greater than it need have been.

I'll return to that.

An earthquake measured at 7.2 on the Richter Scale struck California's Bay Area on October 18, 1989. It caused widespread and spectacular damage in San Francisco and Oakland. Perhaps most spectacular was a long stretch of double-decker highway, where the upper deck collapsed onto the lower. It was a frightening sight, more so when you consider that the quake happened as the evening rush hour was getting going. Some of you who read this will remember that quake, the most devastating in the area since the "Great" San Francisco quake of 1906. Many of the rest of you know how thickly populated the Bay Area is.

The reason I mention that last detail? Bear with me.

The 1989 quake in California caused enormous property damage, estimated at Rs 300 billion: to houses, bridges, airport runways and highways. (How much is Rs 300 billion? Just over half India's defence budget last year). There were hundreds of landslides in the Santa Cruz mountains, where the quake's epicentre was. It was indeed a massive quake, comparable in intensity and wrecking power to the one that devastated Gujarat on Republic Day. Thus you might have expected it to have killed on a scale comparable to Gujarat's quake as well.

In Gujarat, we're up to tens of thousands dead already, and by the time the full dimension of this tragedy hits us, who knows where that count will have mounted to. But in California in 1989, a broadly similar quake killed all of 63 people. Sixty-three.

One reason we often hear for gaps like this is that we have a much higher population in a much smaller area of land. Well, take a look at the numbers. We have about a billion people in India -- about four times the number in the USA. At about a million square miles, India is one-third the size of the USA. Put these together to understand that we are approximately 12 times as densely packed as the USA. I'm not even factoring into this bland calculation two relevant details: that the San Francisco area is one of that country's more densely populated spots and that Kutch is one of India's less densely populated regions. No: just going by the broad numbers in this paragraph, similar calamities in the two countries should kill about 12 times more people in India than they do in the USA. So if a massive earthquake leaves 63 dead in California, you'd expect a similarly massive one to kill about 750 in India.

Why then is Gujarat at nearly 20 times that number of dead and counting? Why is the count of dead in Gujarat a whole order of magnitude greater than we might ordinarily expect? Why are our Indian tragedies invariably vastly greater than elsewhere, to the point that they simply numb us?

I don't have a good answer. But I can speculate. Better yet, I can steal two lines from Krishna Prasad's heartfelt musings the day after the quake. "There is a common strand running through" the tragedies that hobble us every now and then, he wrote. "And it is one of neglect of and nonchalance towards the most valuable commodity known to humankind: Life."

As KP and so many others have emphasised, we can't predict quakes. But we have enough data to know that certain areas are more susceptible than others. To put in place measures to protect life in these areas. It is just such knowledge, just such value on life, that has prompted California to spell out and enforce earthquake-resistant building codes, crisis relief systems and the like. And that's the reason there were so few deaths in 1989.

What price on bringing deaths down from the estimates of 2,000 in 1906 -- caused both by that Great quake and a major fire it set off that raged through San Francisco -- to just 63 in 1989? What price on the respect for life that resulted in that sharp decrease in deaths? "Hospital buildings in the region," says a telling sentence from one report about that 1989 quake, "sustained only minor system and cosmetic damage, and operational interruptions did not occur." How many lives were saved in California because hospitals have been built so even a major earthquake did not cause "operational interruptions", let alone greater damage? And contrast this with the sad condition of Bhuj, where hospitals themselves collapsed. How much did that compound tragedy in the city?

If we in India do have requirements that whatever structures we erect must resist earthquakes, Gujarat is proof that those requirements are either flagrantly inadequate or flagrantly ignored. You can muse over which is worse. Or which implies a lesser respect for life. If it matters.

And yet, the truth about us in India is hardly that we do not respect life. Without going to Gujarat, I am sure there is a duplication there of the tremendous spirit I myself experienced in Orissa after the killer cyclone there in 1999. It was a spirit that encouraged me to the extent that I treasure those few days in Orissa as some of the most uplifting ones of my 41 years. It transcended every sickening barrier -- caste, religion, class, language -- that we otherwise erect so easily. People from every corner of India -- of every possible background, religion, sex, age and physical stature -- worked together, selflessly, tirelessly, to bring Orissa and its people back. As I said, I am sure something similar is unfolding in Gujarat.

And yet again, our tragedy is that it takes a monumental catastrophe for this respect to show. Consider a few aspects of this. If when a crisis is upon us we pull together so valiantly as Indians, why do we erect barriers of hate and prejudice that so divide us in normal times? If we can direct so much emotion and energy and effort towards caring for Indians hit by calamity, can we direct just some of all that towards enforcing laws and regulations; or ridding ourselves of corruption, hunger and illiteracy; or consigning two-bit thugs who pose as our leaders to the dirt-heaps they belong in; take your pick? Towards caring for the hundreds of millions of Indians who live hard and miserable lives even without spectacular calamities?

What might we achieve if we did? What kind of nation might we be?

What non-crisis will it take for us to come together as we do in crises? Or is that, by definition, a meaningless question?

Your thoughts welcome. But only after you've done your bit -- whatever it is -- towards bringing Gujarat back.

Dilip D'Souza

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