Tremors in Bihar

By: Anil K Sinha and Asif Shahab
Awareness on how to deal with disasters can significantly prevent trauma-related issues, as also deaths and injuries caused by earthquakes in seismically active regions.
Disaster Events

Two recent earthquakes struck Bihar in April and May 2015. The first of these occurred on April 25, 2015 at 11:56 am Nepal Standard Time (NST) at a depth of approximately 15 km. Initially reported as 7.5 moment magnitude (Mw) by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) it was quickly upgraded to 7.8 Mw minutes later. Being a shallow earthquake, it was more damaging than the ones originating deeper, with its epicentre approximately 34 km east-southeast of Lamjung, Nepal. It lasted approximately twenty seconds and claimed thousands of lives, rendering millions homeless. In Bihar, 61 people died while 163 people were injured, as per the Department of Disaster Management, Government of Bihar statistics.

The second earthquake occurred on  May 12, 2015 at 12:51 NST, with a 7.3 Mw , with its epicentre 18  km southeast of Kodari, located between Kathmandu and Mt. Everest, close to Tibet. Tremors from this earthquake were also felt in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and other Indian States.

However, most deaths and injuries from these earthquakes have not been due to falling debris or being trapped within collapsed homes and buildings alone. Panic, cardiac arrest and stampedes have contributed to many lives lost and grievous injuries. Many unaware of the basics of how an earthquake strikes even took to jumping off high structures, resulting in injuries or death. Students and teachers of a secondary school under UNICEF supported school safety programme (Bisfi Block, Madhubani district) asserted that earthquake (EQ)safety awareness helped students play a proactive role at the time of the earthquake (EQ)—using the basics of drop, cover, hold, controlling rumours, taking shelter at identified safe locations, post earthquake actions, and the like. These exercises also went on to prove that ‘earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do’. In parts of the northern districts of Bihar, damage to public and private buildings have been unevenly distributed and not merely confined to a fixed area.

Taking cognizance of the situation, the Bihar State Disaster Management Authority (BSDMA) started gathering technical and other information from various sources following the disaster, to chalk out a strategic disaster management plan. BSDMA also sent teams to the border areas of Bihar and Nepal to observe the impact of the earthquake and analyse human behaviour post earthquake.

Observations based on field level study, broadly indicated the following:

  • Those who knew about the dos and don’ts of earthquake behaved in a more responsible manner than those who did not know.
  • Many suffered from fear and anxiety several days later, and felt shaky.
  • A large number of people continued staying in parks and open spaces for several days after the earthquake.
  • Religion played an important role in providing immediate relief as a psycho-social healer.
  • Earthquakes left a long-term impression on people’s minds.
  • Nausea, vomiting, and a rise in heartbeat were common outcomes for those who lived through an earthquake.

The study also unearthed three types of disaster personalities—freeze, panic, and, proactive. Collating the mixed responses from people, it was found that despite their nervousness, those aware of what to do and how to react when a forceful quake hit them, did much better than those totally ignorant. Thus, it was clear that no matter what the catastrophe is, it is vital to be prepared. With the right knowledge and the right equipment, it is possible to survive an earthquake of any magnitude. It also proved that once a plan is in place, one only needs to implement the tools necessary to keep safe. In addition, reviewing disaster management plans regularly with one’s family ensures that they know what to do when disaster strikes.

In Bihar, low cost and informal buildings collapsed, as anticipated—meaning that earthquakes disproportionately affect the poorest in the community, and end up leaving them poorer. Although the technology and skills to eliminate high fatalities are available, people do not care to use them in their daily lives.

One must understand that earthquakes are not just a ‘natural’ crisis: they reflect a poverty crisis. This is a development problem of a State characterized by the failure to incorporate risk and resilience into long term planning. In Bihar, buildings aren’t designed or engineered, they are just built. A simple intervention can make a huge difference, though the infrastructure must also be appropriate for the particular setting. An earthquake should not be the impetus to ‘build back better’ after lives have already been destroyed. Building better should start from day one.

Reports from the field also indicated how people’s perceptions and attitudes towards earthquake risk are shaped by religion, custom and social norms. Most respondents, including the priest of a renowned temple, viewed earthquake as an act of God. People belonging to all faiths considered earthquake a divine punishment. Religion is a particularly important driver of perceptions and behaviour. These two dimensions of belief that emerge most prominently in the context of disaster risk reduction (DRR) form an obstacle to reducing risk and can influence people’s understanding of it.

A team from All India Institute of Medical Sciences, AIIMS Patna that visited Nepal for post-disaster relief following the April 25 quake found at least 40 per cent people in the Himalayan and border regions of Bihar and Nepal suffering from vertigo, vomiting, headache, dizziness and fear. The case report suggests that medical disorders due to quake phobia have emerged as a major problem which needs to be tackled. This general loss of health is being termed the Post Nepal-India Earthquake Syndrome (PINES).

The region most affected by PINES is  the region around Kosi, Gorakhpur and north Nepal extending to Betia, Motihari, Sitamarhi, Muzzafarpur, Bhagalpur, Darbhanga, Madhubani, Samastipur, Siwan, Chhapra, Patna and Vaishali districts in Bihar. People unable to overcome their trauma suffer from quake delusions and spend their nights staring at their ceiling fans anticipating another round of quakes.

Herein, it is important to assess the condition of houses as per the 2011 census, which had taken into account the seismic vulnerability of houses. According to data collected for the 2011 census, Odisha, Assam and Bihar suffer from the largest proportion of dilapidated houses. Odisha leads with 9.9 per cent of houses being dilapidated, followed closely by Assam (8.3 per cent) and Bihar (7.4 per cent). At the district level, similar trends are available with Saran reporting 8.6 per cent of dilapidated houses, with Sitamarhi (6.2 per cent) and other districts recording figures a little above or below the state average.

But, Bihar’s 36.1 per cent ‘good’ houses and 7.4 ‘dilapidated’ houses do not quite constitute a major chunk of all houses in the State. The indicator ‘condition of houses—livable’ offers an insight into the problem. Classification dealing with the ‘livable’ category, shows that Odisha leads with 62.1 per cent of ‘livable’ houses, followed by Bihar (55.6 per cent) and Assam (55.4 per cent). On the other hand, a relatively prosperous state such as Kerala (38.4 per cent) has a far less proportion of houses in the livable category. The ‘livable’ category lies somewhere between ‘dilapidated’ and ‘good’. A ‘livable’ house may not be dilapidated but it does not assure the safety and strength of a ‘good’ house.

Bihar is clearly a seismically active zone. It is hard to say exactly when and where the next earthquake will strike, although we do know that big quakes are inevitable. Yet throughout the region, buildings continue to be poorly constructed that topple easily during earthquakes.  Contractors here fail to adhere to building codes. What’s more, the existing building codes often only apply to civic structures —not people’s homes. As a result, in the event of an earthquake, these dwellings collapse, killing many.

Although one cannot control the seismic hazard in a region where you live, but working towards the adoption and enforcement of up-to-date building codes is a doable goal. Evaluating older buildings and retrofitting them with structural and non-structural components can also prove strategically crucial for the community. To survive and remain resilient, communities should strengthen their core infrastructure and critical facilities so that essential services remain unaffected in the event of an earthquake or any other disaster.


Planning for the next earthquake should start today in earnest. The process begins with a commitment to end poor quality housing that has caused so much needless loss of life. Modern buildings constructed in keeping with the right building standards could have withstood the jolt felt in Bihar. Fatalities from earthquakes being a man made problem; one needs to veer towards a man made solution.

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