The recurrence of a >major earthquake on May 12 — this time measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale — with its epicentre near Kodari in Nepal, barely a fortnight after the >devastating temblor in the landlocked country, has once again raised questions about preparedness for such disasters in the subcontinent. India is divided into five seismic zones, with Zone 5 being the most active and earthquake-prone. The Himalayan regions, the Assam and Burma region, and the Bhuj region in the west fall in this category. While the time of occurrence of a big earthquake cannot be predicted accurately with existing technology, the foreknowledge of potential danger areas can help mitigate the impact of a disaster. The reason for earthquakes occurring in Nepal is known: the movement of the Indian tectonic plate against the Eurasian plate. Along the Himalayas lie two fault-lines: the Main Boundary Thrust and the Main Central Thrust. Running parallel to the Himalayan ranges to a width of 100 km to 120 km, this region has a history of earthquakes. In the last 120 years, there have been four major events: 1897 (Shillong), 1905 (Himachal Pradesh, Kangra), 1934 (Nepal-Bihar border), 1950 (Arunachal Pradesh, then a part of the North East Frontier Agency or NEFA).
The movement of the Indian tectonic plate against the Eurasian plate has created accumulated stress. This stress is released in a manner that makes predicting earthquakes impossible. When a major event happens, part of the stress is released at that point but accumulates in a different part of the belt. Thus there is no natural escape for the region from susceptibility to earthquakes. The best-laid plans for disaster mitigation following quakes can go awry, but some lessons can be learnt from the past. However, as the gap between the occurrence of major earthquakes in a given region could stretch over more than a lifespan, memories can fade and mitigation plans may not be grounded in lived experience. The real advancement that has been made recently in India is, for instance, the >setting up of many seismological stations , especially after the Bhuj earthquake of 2001. Measurements from these stations and global positioning system data now tell us the Indian plate is moving north at a speed of 5 centimetres a year. This would contribute to stress accumulation and to seismic activity even in Zones 2, 3 and 4. We need to accept earthquakes as a reality and do everything in our power to redefine development plans, especially in terms of building quake-resistant buildings. There should be systematic resort to “disaster drills” to educate the public on what to do during an earthquake. Preparedness is the key to managing any more such disasters.