It is never easy to rationalise tragedy, but terrifying as the Tupul landslide in which 21 are already known killed and the fate of scores more still uncertain, it must be said this is a humbling lesson for one and all. But first, our deepest condolences to the next of kins of those who were unfortunate to lose their near and dear ones to this disaster. May they have the strength and courage to bear their unimaginably immense losses and overcome their grief. While our hearts go out to those who have suffered, and are overwhelmed by the images of suffering and loss that continue to pour in, the consolation is, the overwhelming sorrow brought by human tragedies of such magnitudes, always bring people together. It is indeed heart lifting to see several voluntary organisations from different parts of the state rushing to the spot of the disaster, joining hands with local villagers to put in their might in the effort of the Territorial Army, Police and Paramilitary workers, in the rescue mission. Likewise, not only the state government but also the Central government have pledged they would not leave any stone unturned to mitigate the misery of those unfortunate to face the brunt of nature’s fury this time.
We also hope that the water of the lake formed out of the blockage of Ejei river, a tributary of the Irang river, by the landslide mud is safely unleashed so that what would have led to an inevitable dam burst ultimately, putting to danger populations downstream, is defused and prevented. We are sure experts are working to do precisely this, and information so far is that they have accomplished the mission to a great extent. We also hope and pray that the monsoon rains also do not come pouring down just as yet, complicating these operations further.
The realisation at such moments of deep sorrow is, nature’s fury has no particular target, and can befall on anybody anywhere on the planet. At such times, the frailty and commonality of the human predicament becomes stark, making everybody, including the mightiest, meek and vulnerable. Against the magnitude of the cosmos, and its reserve of energy, humans are practically nothing. The inherent paradox of nature’s destructive energy is precisely this – and in the words of Irish Poet, W.B. Yeats, although said in a different context, it can become “a terrible beauty”. The same can be said of tragedy itself. Terrifying as it may be, there is in a metaphysical way, a beauty in them too. It opens up a window for man to see and realise his limits and littleness. This is why, in literature, tragedy as a genre still stands tall. Indeed, the most memorable literary characters ever, are tragic ones – Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Anna Karenina, Khamba and Thoibi etc.
All religions also address this insignificance of man in the cosmos, teaching him therefore that he can find permanence only in God. In the Gita, this is done most dramatically. When Arjuna refuses to fight, saying he would rather be a beggar or a hermit, than fight and kill his cousins and teachers who posed before him as enemies, Krishna shows him the frightening visage of himself as the churning universe, and that regardless of what anybody does, they cannot escape his insignificance, and that the only meaning he can give his own life is to know and do his ordained duty honestly.
It is a landslide this time. It could be an earthquake next time that bring another flood of misery for people. We can do nothing about these natural phenomena, other than hope they will not be destructive. We can however be cautious, knowing fully well our vulnerabilities. We know the mountains of eastern Himalayas are relatively young, therefore their top soil thick and rich, making them fertile but also prone to landslips when soaked in monsoon water. This especially so when the hillsides are barren of green cover. This is understandable, for the green cover, trees to grass, keeps the soil firm and regulate their absorption and discharge of moisture during rain and after. It must also be admitted that our land and forest use pattern have not always been wary of this truth, and therefore have often been unsustainable. In all probability, the Tupul landslip was also hastened by the baring of green covers of its hillsides, mostly on account of the railway project. The unusually high off season rainfall the state and the rest of the Northeast have seen in the past few months probably is also a factor in this tragedy. Without pointing fingers at anybody, it must however be noted that in the face of the unusual rainfall, people in the area, those engaged in the railway line construction, those providing them security, as well as local villagers in and around, probably ought to have been a little more cautious of the possible danger. But as they say, it is far more easier to say what ought to have been done in hindsight than with foresight to anticipate and prevent what might happen. However, this bitter lesson must not be forgotten so future catastrophes are avoided to the extent possible.
Manipur is also in a very earthquake prone region. In our lifetime, all of us over 50 have seen some devastation caused by earthquake as well. This is why, before any more seismic disaster visits us, our town planners must evolve strategies and building standards that everybody must adhere to in order to minimise, if not eliminate, adverse consequences of our collective geographical seismic fate. Like landslips which are predestined because gravity is universal, there is also little anybody can do to prevent earthquakes. Eternal caution therefore is mankind’s only remedy. Scientists now explain to us that earthquakes are caused by landmasses in the earth’s crust crashing into each other. The Indian landmass thus crashed into the Asian mass about 25 million years ago, and the impact is still continuing, so that the Indian landmass continues its northward shift at the rate of 1 to 1.5 inches a year. Sometimes the impact tension builds up for years, and then it is suddenly released so that the landmasses slip against each other, or over each other, by as much as 10 feet. In the case of the Indian plate (landmass) these big slips have been regularly occurring at an interval of about 70 years, which is how scientist can roughly expect where and when in a seismically prone area an earthquake may likely hit.
Plates movements in the earth’s crust is a reality, though it is hardly a phenomenon which can be demonstrated. The most ready common sense proof of this is the existence of mountains, as Bill Bryson points out in “A Short History of Nearly Everything”. Bryson an authority on the subject, is a universally acknowledged excellent chronicler of the history of science. He said when the theory of the plates movements and crashes was first proposed, scientists were amazed they did not think of this much earlier, for if this was not so, and there were no internal pressures within the earth’s crust that continually pushed mountains up, in the four billion or so years of the earth’s existence, gravity and erosion would have ensured the earth’s surface a smooth sphere, for all mountains would have been by the time washed to the sea, to borrow from a song lyric from Bob Dylan. Bryson also humorously notes that scientist again gasped in disbelief that they did not think of the Big Bang Theory when Newton discovered gravity after witness an apple fall from the tree to the ground. If everything attracted each other, the universe should have long ago converged and collapsed into one point, unless there was a counterforce pulling everything away from each other. Edwin Hubble paved the way for the Big Bang Theory, when he observed in 1929 that all stars seemed to be travelling away from each other. Nature is mysterious and awesome indeed.
The end note is, there are many things beyond human control. In comparison to nature’s scheme of things, they are insignificant and that it is a complete fallacy for them to see themselves and their egos as central to the universe, or creation, as it were. Catastrophe can overtake them anytime anywhere. Let every one of us then pledge in this moment of great tragedy and sorrow, to remain humble, united and cautious always.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author