Nepal prime minister Sushil Koirala’s statement that the death toll in the earthquake that hit the Himalayan republic would cross the 10,000-mark is a pointer to the gargantuan task awaiting the SAARC nations. From the initial estimates of hundreds killed, the toll figure has been galloping with each passing day. There is no doubt that the quake, which measured 7.9 on the Richter scale with Western Nepal as its epicentre, is the worst the country has suffered in its history. A proper assessment of the damage will have to wait a few weeks as the area devastated by the quake is large and is not easily accessible. For every death, there are many who are injured, some of them seriously, or have lost everything they had.
Nepal is one of the poorest countries. It does not have proper infrastructure and communication facilities. This makes the task of providing relief to the affected people extremely difficult. Even today it cannot be said with certainty that every person, trapped by the quake, has been rescued. The country does not have heavy equipment which can remove the debris and ensure that nobody is alive under them. As a neighbour, India has been providing all kinds of assistance to the Nepalese in their hour of tragedy. The Indian Army is actively engaged in rescue and relief operations in the worst affected areas. India has already assured Nepal that whatever help was possible would be extended to the people there. While relief and rehabilitation are the prime needs of Nepal, it is also time to think of disaster preparedness.
As India is the largest and strongest among the SAARC countries, it should take the lead in giving a concrete shape to its disaster mitigation management plan. Given the level of poverty among the SAARC nations, it would be futile to expect them to have earthquake-resistant buildings, though they are situated in the most vulnerable seismic zone. Floods and earthquakes are the most frequent natural disasters that visit them. Landlocked Nepal is particularly vulnerable because of its topography. The fragile ecology of its mountain slopes is easily upset by the types of human exploitation of natural resources. While taking the lead, India can also improve its own disaster preparedness. Lessening the potential damage as much as responding to a disaster needs to be part of India’s disaster management strategy.