How India Missed the Opportunity to Generate Any Comprehensive Data on the Earthquakes in Nepal

Data collected during an earthquake, even a minor one, is instrumental in gaining an understanding of the events that led to the tectonic shift. Although earthquakes cannot be predicted, a study of what caused them is useful in the creation of supporting infrastructure that can help minimise the damage during such events. Wikipedia
13 May, 2015

Over the past month, as Nepal recorded two of the strongest earthquakes in its recent history, Indian scientists were left without adequate research data to understand what is happening along the most crucial seismic zone in the subcontinent. Dr Ashok Mathur, a professor in the department of earthquake engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Roorkee, who spent ten years of his life establishing a network to monitor precisely such an event, said, “I am 60 years old, and I have never witnessed a stronger tremor [than the earthquake on 25 April] in my life,” adding, in a frustrated voice, “and I have no data to study this.”

In September 2014, the government of India decided to cut the funding of a research program called the Program for Excellence in Strong Motion Studies (PESMOS) at IIT Roorkee. Bereft of the only source of nation-wide data on earthquakes, scientists in India were forced to make their peace with the seismic data recordings that were made available from regional research wings scattered across the country, none of them as prompt as PESMOS was.

The project, which built a nationwide network of accelerographs—a strong motion seismographs which are used to measure and record ground motion during an earthquake—was sanctioned to IIT Roorkee by the Department of Science and Technology of the government in 2004 to create a knowledge base of strong motion studies. Between 2004 and 2008, PESMOS, under the command of Dr Mathur had installed 294 accelerographs across north and northeast India, the seismically vulnerable zones in the country.

Sometime in late 2014, the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) decided that the control of the accelerographs should come under the National Centre for Seismology (NCS), a new body carved out of the Indian Meteorological Department that aims to bring all of IMD’s siesmology related activities under one umbrella. The takeover was scheduled for 31 December 2014, but according to Mathur, the funding of Rs 80 lakh per year stopped in September. After a three-month limbo, in December, PESMOS—a group of about haf-a-dozen researchers—ceased to work.

“Had it been a transient shift, we could have at least trained the new staff; but they made a unilateral decision,” Mathur told me during a conversation over the phone. Four months after the funding had stopped, and PESMOS’ seismic recording systems had been stalled, the MoES called Mathur on 20 February 2015 to formally transfer the charge of equipment to the NCS. “Seismic observations are the starting point of any research regarding an earthquake,” said Mathur, who has been receiving information of accelerographs falling off the grid due to the lack of maintence since September. On 25 April, when the earthquake that measured 8.1 on the Richter Scale according to the China Earthquakes Network Centre (the US Geological Survey ascertained that the it measured at a magnitude of 7.8) and claimed more than 8000 lives struck India and Nepal, these accelerographs may have been lying dysfunctional for more than six months. “The accelerographs might only need a change of batteries; but even if they aren’t wasted completely, nobody’s using them,” Mathur told me.

BK Bansal, who is the advisor and head of geoscience and seismology at the MoES, told me that “three teams have been dispatched to check the status of accelerographs after the Nepal tragedy.” When I asked him why the NCS had not been prepared in advance to avoid such an event, he replied, “These decisions are taken by committees that involve the whole ministry.” The bureaucratic delay did not seem to worry him, he told me that “if the accelerographs did record the data during the earthquake, our teams will download it.”

Data collected during an earthquake, even a minor one, is instrumental in gaining an understanding of the events that led to the tectonic shift. Although earthquakes cannot be predicted, a keen study of what caused them is useful in the creation of supporting infrastructure that can help minimise the damage during such events. This could include the building of earthquake resistant structures, an evaluation of the seismic vulnerability of an area, and an assessment of the impact of a tremor on surrounding areas. According to Mathur, the 600 users who were active on the PESMOS website—“mostly scientists from across the country,” he said—used the data for such purposes.

A little more than a month before the first earthquake on 25 April, Mathur wrote a frantic letter addressed to Bansal, underlining the urgency of fixing the dysfunctional accelerographs: “Our country will cut a very sorry face if a big earthquake event occurs as in the present stage of the instrumentation we might not get any strong motion record.” When I pressed Bansal about the repercussions of not having an active system to register the earth’s tectonic movement, he brushed the question aside. “Did it lead to a shut down of our nuclear system or did it hamper the working of Delhi metro?” he asked.

When I called Bansal yesterday, after another earthquake hit Nepal, Afghanistan and China, the tremors of which were felt in different parts of India, I was told that he was not in the office. An official from the secretary’s office at the MoES told me that, “Mr Bansal is out of the country for official purposes, but [I was] in no position to ask for the purpose of his visit.” A senior official at the NCS, whom I did manage to speak to, told me on the condition of anonymity that there is still no update on the status of the accelerographs. “Teams will come back in about a month,” he said.

“The equipment has been passed to a bunch of people who possess no scientific knowledge or understanding,” said Saumitra Mukherjee, who teaches geology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi and was one of the users of the PESMOS data. A seismograph installed in the JNU campus also collected data of earthquakes that fall between 2 to3 on the Richter scale. “I had been studying minor movements in tectonic plates of the earth, but I haven’t received a single bit of data to work on since September last year,” he said, before adding: “They have now created an environment where it is impossible to do anything without having connections with bureaucrats.”

Atul Dev is a former staff writer at The Caravan.