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6.19 AM, April 4th – 105 years ago!

By: Naresh Parmar

It is April 1905 in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh. The spring had just started. Wild cherry trees are full of bloom. The snow on the mighty Dhauladhar ranges has not yet started to melt. The average temperature is not 8 degrees C above normal (as it is these days). It is like any other sunrise – serene and beautiful – rising behind the mighty Dhauladhars in the east at 6.11 AM.

But the day was not doomed to be a normal day like any other. At 6.19 AM, the earth was shaken – horizontally as well as vertically – by an earthquake that till today is India’s worst earthquake (in terms of lives lost). It almost wiped off Kangra, Dharamsala, and Palampur towns from the face of earth. “I was a toddler, hence, did not see the devastation. My father told me that all the buildings in our village collapsed.” my grandfather narrated tales of horror while I attended college in Palampur in early 1980s.

On April 26, 1986 afternoon, I was inside Palampur University’s huge auditorium when an earthquake measuring 5.7 occurred. Even before I could start running out of the building, the shocks were over! What if the building had collapsed? I could well visualize the impact of 7.8 intensity earthquake on people, most of them still in their beds!

Let us get the facts straight:

* The epicenter was 13 Kms from Kangra (near Pathiar/Malan, Nagrota Bagwan).
* The magnitude was 7.8 (not 8.0+ as reported earlier).
* Geologists calculated 6.19 AM as its time – based on seismographic instruments installed all over the world. Mr Mul Raj Puri at Baijnath clocked 6.15 AM in his time piece.
* There were several aftershocks. The immediate one, that arrived seven minutes after the first, was quite powerful.

The tremors were in waves; from north to south, then south to north, and finally sinking downwards – much like tsunami waves. A Statesman (of Kolkata) correspondent reported that “sensation of sea sickness was also experienced.”

The loss of life was colossal. As per official records, 19,727 people died out of an approximate population of 375,000 in the affected area. Many un-reported deaths would only increase this number. It is said that voices could be heard for many days from beneath the rubble crying out for help. But most government officials had died, leaving no one to help or supervise.

Mr Rajender Paul, Magistrate in Kangra, was one of the few officials who survived. He was assigned the task of relief and rehabilitation. He wrote to his Lahore HQ, “…Many people dead, some still alive imprisoned in ruined houses, meanwhile several gangs preparing to loot…. Send at least 200 constables, please send urgently”. (Moral values were no different even at that time?)

In Shimla, Lady Curzon narrowly escaped death when a chimney crashed into her room. In Palampur, Mr Miller (ICS) and Raja Bhavani Sen of Mandi escaped with minor injuries. The Dak Bungalow of Palampur in which they were staying fell like a house of cards within five minutes of the earthquake.

The agriculture based economy was adversely affected with deaths of nearly 53,000 domestic animals. To add to the woes, aqueducts (kuhls, for irrigation), made out of centuries of labour, were damaged extensively. The economic cost was estimated at Rs 29 lakhs (approx Rs 200 crores at current value).

The dust cloud in Kangra was so huge that it could be seen from Dharamsala Cantt. Except for the Magazine, the Treasury, and Sadr Kanungo’s office in Dharamsala, and Post Office Building in Palampur, all other structures were razed to ground. According to government records, one lakh buildings were destroyed. Kangra Fort, Jwalamukhi Temple and Baijnath Temple suffered significant damages. Palampur Bazaar, McLeod Ganj Bazaar and Civil Bazaar (Dharamsala) were completely leveled.

Several cracks in earth, some measuring up to 10 feet deep, were created by this earthquake. The hot water springs of Vashist at Manali turned cold. They returned with hot water in a week’s time.

Today, it is April of 2010. Where are we? Spring seems to have passed in a whiff. Summer has already set in. Day temperatures are 8 Degrees C above normal. People in Kangra have installed air-conditioners in their concrete houses!

In Dec 2001, the then director, Town and Country Planning, Manoj Kumar forecasted, “In case there was an earthquake like the 1905 Kangra tremor today, the loss of life would be around 65,000 with an accompanying loss of Rs 5,000 crores”. He added: “It is high time we put an end to all the haphazard concrete constructions before our future generations have to pay a heavy price for it”.

Kangra Valley in considered to be in most vulnerable, Zone V, area. As per geologists, there is a chance of similar earthquake happening in same area within 200-300 years of 1905. While I may not be alive to see the devastation, I wonder if we are doing enough to avoid another catastrophe?

Do we need micro- / mini-hydel projects that adversely affect local sources of irrigation and drinking water? Why un-scientific mining of river beds that dries up drinking water schemes? Why multi-storied concrete buildings without urban planning in place?

Yes, we are definitely ensuring another catastrophe?

(The author is currently Managing Director of two IT firms – ExecuTrain at Dubai and Atalosys at Kochi (Kerela). A native of Nanaon (near Palampur), he is an MBA from IIM Ahmedabad.)

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