A few days after the Kutch earthquake in January 2001, I was ringing the doorbell at Arthur C. Clarke’s Colombo villa-cum-futurist office. Its architecture was as unique as its occupant, its fitments as distinctive as their owner. It had been my intention to call on the great man ever since I arrived in that city to work in India’s High Commission. The urgent always overtakes the important and in some cities like Colombo, more than in others. So, with one urgency coming over another I could not pay that call.
The visionary was ‘confined to a wheelchair’ is how one would normally put it. But Clarke was not confined to anything, let alone to something on wheels. He moved from room to room, inviting me into the house and into a conversation with the ease of a skater.
I did not have to start. He opened the conversation with the subject of the earthquake. “I have spent three weeks in Ahmedabad as a guest of the Sarabhais,” he said, “and so my sense of sorrow is all the greater.”
There is not much one can say in response to such a deeply felt remark and I was quiet for a long minute before asking Clarke if, in his view, we would ever come to the position of being able to predict earthquakes. “Strange, you should ask that,” he said with excitement. Wheeling himself to one of his bookshelves, he pulled out a squat volume. It was a book co-authored by him, Richter 10 . Clarke autographed the volume, placed it in my hands and wheeled himself to behind his desk.
I turned the book’s pages and saw the novel opened with a dramatic forward: “Many years ago I was standing in a Delhi hotel when I became aware of a faint vibration underfoot. ‘I had no idea,’ I said to my hosts, ‘that Delhi has a subway system’. ‘It doesn’t,’ they answered. That was my one and only experience of earthquakes.”
Reading any further with the author sitting in front of me would have been rude and so I closed the volume with a few words of thanks. Before I could finish, he returned to my question. While earthquake prediction may take some more time, he said, what should be done is to inaugurate a new architecture in quake-prone areas which would deny the seismic activity its logical end — devastation.
Back home, I read the novel. It was gripping not as a story as much as a scientist’s vision of what humanity may well encounter. The protagonist, Lewis Crane, has been crippled and orphaned in an earthquake. But does he go under? Not at all. He grows to be a physicist and a Nobel Laureate with a passion for devising a method for earthquake prediction.
I did not meet Clarke again but that conversation has stayed with me as the subject was to crop up a year and a half later when, stationed in Oslo, I was headed to Reykjavik with letters of concurrent accreditation signed by President Abdul Kalam. I was in my office and phone operators at both ends had told me who was calling and I was all attention.
“Good afternoon, Rashtrapatiji. Honoured to get this call. Are you keeping well, Sir?”
“Oh yes. Fantastic.”
“Happy to know that, Sir.”
“Now... You are going to Iceland. Please ask them how their work in earthquake anticipation goes.”
“I will do that, Sir.”
“You know Iceland is volcanically active.”
“I have gathered that, Sir.”
“So, find that out and let me know.”
“Of course, Sir...”
A few pleasantries followed before he hung up having tuned me to an aspect of diplomacy I would have neither dreamed of — creative engagement in what President Kalam would call “core competence”. The conversation brought to life Clarke and our conversation in Colombo.
In Reykjavik, I did find out what the President had asked. “You see, Mr. Ambassador,” I was told by a senior seismologist. “It is like a cerebral situation. The brain suffers a series of mini-strokes like the equivalent of 1 or 2 on the Richter scale. You will not feel them. Such small tremors are not recorded either, except by the seismograph. We see the behaviour of those ‘mini-tremors’ and conclude by the frequency and the velocity of the series as to when a big quake is likely to occur. We have progressed in our work but much more needs to be done.”
Preparing for the ‘big one’
Today India has a sophisticated set of monitors embedded beneath the soil’s surface in many vulnerable points as a result of President Kalam’s lively interest and the earnest follow-up by successive Ministers in charge of Earth Sciences. India probably has collaborations with other countries in this field as well which can only be described as a life-and-death one.
But even as cyclones intensifying their frequency and velocity makes us anxious about our littoral safety, tremors having rocked Delhi with disturbing frequency since April this year must make us want to know how prepared we are for the ‘big one’, should it visit Himalayan and sub-Himalayan India . And this ‘over and above’ the pandemic.
The Himalayas are young and restive. Are our cities, towns and villages on and around the Himalayas safe against such a shock? Are we regulating high-rise constructions in zones of high vulnerability like Delhi and hill stations? Is it time for a second look at dams and nuclear power installations in the region for their quake-resistant standards?
Clarke’s Richter Ten is fiction but not fantasy. Not for us in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan where the subcontinent’s pushing into upper Asia has not stopped.
How many of us recall how many died and were rendered homeless in Latur (1993), in Kutch (2001) or even in the Indian Ocean tsunami (2004)? And the one of 2005 which left 79,000 officially dead in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and 1,500 in Jammu and Kashmir, and more recently, the one that all but flattened Nepal (2015, 8.1 ‘Mercalli Severe’)?
We are not to get alarmed. But we are to be alert. And that includes short-, medium- and long-term action. The short term requires that vulnerable buildings be identified and plans for their occupants’ safety made. The medium term requires that a new architecture regime be made mandatory for all builders and developers. The long-term action has to include a de-congesting of our cities. If South Africa can have one political capital, another legislative capital, a third judicial capital and a fourth business capital, why should we not think of such a dispersal at the Centre and in the States ? And it has to include a clear-eyed survey of dangerous densities, vulnerable heights, clogged accesses.
New Delhi is receiving political and architectural attention for a major overhaul of its official buildings. New Delhi and much more seem to be receiving seismic attention as well that could do more than overhaul. But if not yet predictable and certainly not preventable, that seismic plan can yet have its impact blunted if we think and act betimes.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor