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

13 May 2015
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.

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.

Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.