Saturday, October 31, 2015

Rahul Jacob: Are we ready for the next earthquake?

It is hard to think of a major country that cares less about contingency planning and awareness of what to do in such situations than India.

When asked by African reporters about what safeguards and plans the government had in place for an earthquake after powerful tremors rocked New Delhi on Monday, an Indian government spokesman cheerfully replied that the visiting dignitaries from 50 African countries had been enjoying delicacies at lunch at the time and had scarcely noticed the tremors. It is hard to imagine what the African media thought of such a smug response.

I happened to be at lunch as well, when the tremors shook New Delhi, with visiting executives from a multinational and a mixed group of Indians that included Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi. We were on the stodgy top floor of the Taj Hotel when the table shook and then lurched like an ocean liner in a storm. The staff at the Chambers directed us to the elevators, probably the worst place to be. We headed instead for the staircase, occasionally gasping as the handrails and the stairs shook. We had more than 20 flights of a narrow staircase to walk down, a trek made worse by the fact that the floor numbers were not marked. A childhood friend behind me laughed as I grabbed her high-heeled shoe, which had tumbled down ahead of her. If the Taj Hotel had a public address system, the management elected not to use it in the minutes after the tremors shook the building. For all the graciousness of the staff, I came away feeling that the hotel needed a lot of work on its evacuation protocols in the event of a fire or an earthquake. By the time we got to the lobby, people were at least being asked to assemble by the pool.

Getting into my car to return to a 3-pm news meeting, I turned on the radio to try and determine how serious the quake was. In the West, in such instances, radio and TV would be quick to dispense advice and information. Just the day before, every private channel had been playing the prime minister's Mann Ki Baat address, his clever commandeering of the airwaves that helps drown out the disenchanted intelligentsia. On Monday, I could get no news till I chanced upon the unfailingly silly 94.3. The radio jockey asked listeners to phone in with their experiences and then cut to Carole King's old hit, "I Feel the Earth Move". What can one do but laugh?

It is hard to think of a major country that cares less about contingency planning and awareness of what to do in such situations than India. Routine fire drills every few months in offices in cities like Hong Kong and London might be a bore, but at least they do them. By contrast, entry and exit at most theatres and offices in India seem to be funnelled through the narrowest points. Trying to discreetly leave a small private dinner early on Wednesday evening in the midst of a talk because I had the flu, I discovered that the back staircase was blocked because residents used it as storage, effectively meaning that one of the swankiest buildings in Mumbai had only one exit. We appear incapable of learning lessons from tragedies such as the fire at the Uphaar cinema theatre in Delhi years ago.

The way India approaches public health is not much different, spending less as a percentage of gross domestic product than most developing countries. Both Delhi and Mumbai are in the grip of a dengue epidemic, but government announcements that stress wearing long-sleeved garments and using repellent have been few and far between. My nephew and a close friend have had typhoid recently, which made me realise my vaccination - administered by a National Health Service nurse in the UK for free when I lived there - was no longer valid. I was referred to Max Super Speciality Hospital, where after a terrific paper chase of forms being filled in triplicate and disputes about whether my doctor's prescription on his letterhead was sufficient or it should be on the hospital's letterhead, I arrived at the hospital's pharmacy. There, I was told that they did not have much demand for the vaccine and it was out of stock. I was sent to paediatrics, where a male nurse helpfully informed me that the vaccination was for children. I never managed to get the injection. As I left, I noticed an Arab gentleman wearing traditional dress sitting at a Max Bupa insurance booth and praying fervently as he ran a rosary through his hand.

As we staked our claim to being a great power and extended an avuncular pat on the back to African nations this week, the agrarian crisis has played out both in the high prices of pulses and in microcosm, in Punjab, which as Ajay Vir Jakhar observed in The Indian Express has gone from breadbasket to basketcase through the overuse of wildly subsidised fertilisers, wasteful use of water and the decline in agricultural research. Even as India's agricultural productivity remains below many African countries, we now face becoming one of the more water-scarce places on the planet. When I recounted my story on the day of the tremors in Delhi to two colleagues, each replied that ours is a country that rests on bhagwan bharosa, or faith in god. We should start praying in earnest. We seem complacently content to do little else.
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