Feb 5, 2001
The official death toll from the January 26 earthquake in northwestern India has reached 15,000. Estimates for the final count of deaths vary from 25,000 to as much as 100,000. No matter which of these figures eventually proves more accurate, the human toll of this earthquake is enormous.
It's true that, at 7.7 on the Richter scale, this was a very strong earthquake. And yet, the magnitude of the earthquake cannot excuse the severity of the human loss and suffering resulting from it. For, as an Indian earthquake expert put it, "earthquakes do not kill people, but man-made structures do."
The cities struck by the earthquake certainly had enough of those structures, and the deadliest kind at that. Many high-rise buildings collapsed in these cities, instantly killing or trapping thousands of people. These were relatively new buildings, most of them less than a decade old. They would have probably withstood this earthquake if they had been constructed according to the safety standards prescribed for that part of India, which is in a well-known earthquake zone.
But the contractors who built these buildings obviously didn't pay any attention to those standards. For example, to cut costs, almost all the new buildings were built using the "roof load bearing" design, that is, their entire weight rested on the roof slab instead of being shared by the pillars. In contrast, buildings, in which the "beam load bearing" design was used, have mostly survived the quake.
While these contractors were making a quick –and hefty –profit by using cheaper designs and materials, the government officials who were supposed to enforce the safety codes obviously looked the other way.
The callous and sluggish attitude of these same government officials after the earthquake also contributed significantly to the rise of the death toll. Although a massive earthquake in that region was certainly no surprise, it became clear that the government had made practically no preparations to cope with the aftermath of such a quake.
First of all, there was a severe shortage of rescue personnel and equipment. But even those at hand had to wait, sometimes for days, before being put to work. To mention just one example, a Swedish rescue team carrying sniffer dogs arrived in Ahmedabad in a matter of hours, only to wait for 30 hours to get permission from government officials so that they could start work. These same local officials, however, didn't seem to drag their feet when they quickly prepared for the visit of the prime minister and other leading national politicians who showed up to have their pictures taken with disaster victims.
All this is certainly not peculiar to India. For example, what has been happening before, during and after this earthquake is almost a carbon copy of what happened in August 1999, when a massive earthquake hit western Turkey and killed 40,000 people.
For many decades now, humanity has had enough knowledge and experience to prevent earthquakes from causing the kind of damage and loss of life that this one in India caused. We know exactly in what parts of the world earthquakes will occur, and we know how to build structures that will survive quakes even ten times stronger than this one in India. But those who make the decisions that concern the well-being of the whole society are not interested in spending money to minimize the damage and human suffering resulting from earthquakes and other natural phenomena. And that's because capitalist society is not run to meet the needs of all of its members but for the profit of a small, wealthy minority.