Droughts, flash floods, flooding from monsoonal rains, severe thunderstorms, earthquakes cyclones, landslides and other disasters that kill dozens of people every year in India. They would be front page news if they happened in America but in India are buried in the back pages of Indian newspapers because they occur so frequently. The death of 5,000 people from the December 2004 tsunami wasn’t as big a deal in India as might have been in other places. In 2001, India experienced an earthquake that left 25,000 dead. In 1999, a cyclone killed more than 3,500 people. Every year several hundred Indians die in monsoon floods.

Mark Twain once commented that Indians "are a curious people. With them all life seems to be sacred, excepted human life." On a flood one Indian newspaper editor told AP, “Floods don’t have any disaster value any more. It’s nothing new. Its an annual phenomena, so newspaper editors are indifferent. People have gotten immune to human disasters. It tragic but true.”

In the early 2000s, the Indian government promised to provide families $2,400 for each victim killed in a disaster provided the family show proof of death. In the majority of cases, families failed to collect the compensation payments because they couldn’t prove the victim was dead. Sometimes bodies are cremated before they are identified. For religious and health reasons, the dead are often cremated soon after a disaster occurs. The final death counts from natural disasters are often unknown.

Disasters and Famines in India

In 1630, it is believed, 5 million people died in Indian from an El Niño-induced drought and famine. India's earliest recorded famine, in 1669 and 1670, killed an estimated 3 million people. An 18-month drought in India in 1769-1770 left 3 million dead. Between 1876 and 1878 it is estimated that nearly six million people died when cholera and mass starvation ensued after torrential rains ruined crops in the south and the monsoon failed to appear in the north. Over five million people died between 1896 and 1897 when a severe drought was followed by famine and disease.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the world's largest kitchen was the field kitchen set in Ahmadnagar, Maharashtra for a famine in April 1973. It served 1.2 million meals a day. A flood in Morvi, India on August 11, 1979 killed 15,000 people. Part of this was the world’s worst dam burst disaster: the collapse of the Machhu River dam due to flooding, which killed 5,000 people in Morvi.

In some cases, colonial powers made things worse. Nick Robins of Bloomberg wrote: When drought struck Bengal in 1769, the East India company “raised taxes and refused to intervene; contemporaries estimated that as many as 10 million people died in the resulting famine. Back in London, the East India Company’s shares slumped in response to the conflict in South India. This provoked a wider credit crisis, forcing the company’s directors to beg the government for a bailout in the summer of 1772. The East India Company’s centrality to Britain’s commercial and imperial ambitions meant that it was the original “too big to fail” corporation. [Source: By Nick Robins, Bloomberg, March 12, 2013]

There was a terrible famine in Bengal in 1943 that for the most part was artificial and could have been avoided if boats impounded by the British to keep them out of the hands of the Japanese could have been used to deliver rice. Three million people perished in Bengal at a rate of about 30,000 a week. The streets of Calcutta were filled with the dead and the dying. The harvest had been plentiful but food had been stockpiled for the Allied troops, who were expecting a Japanese invasion. At the time people were straving in Calcutta rice was being exported from Bombay. Some historians believe the famine was allowed by the British to happen to cripple the Indian independence movement.

Overflowing and bursting dams occur from time to time in India. In 1988 monsoon waters released from the Bharkr and Nangal Dams flooded a large portion of the Punjab. Believing the flooding was intentional, terrorists executed the director of the dam project. The construction of earthen levees has encourage people to move. When the food waters breach the levees there is massive destruction. Levees built before 1970s, often constructed with insufficient hydrological data, are particularly vulnerable. Waters inside the levees silt up. The rivers have to be dredged or the levees have to be raised to prevent flooding.

Monsoon Troubles

Every years hundred die and hundreds of thousands are displaced or affected on some way by monsoon floods. Floods have gotten worse in some places as people have moved onto flood plains. The Ganges floods it banks every year. A flood in 1948 carried three ghats and later floods damaged others.

The monsoon season in 2003, killed 1,500 people in South Asia. More than 100 were killed in a single savage downpour in July in Kulu near Shimla, India. Floods in June in Assam and northeast India killed more than 1,000 people and left more than 200,000 homeless and washed way roads, bridges. More than 2.5 million were displaced. The problem became particularly acute after a dam burst in Bhutan. Hundreds were killed and millions were affected in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa states. Across India more than 7,000 square kilometers of land was submerged. The monsoon season in 2002 killed around around 500 people and displaced or stranded 16 million. The worst ht areas were Bihar and Assam.

In August 2004, heavy monsoon rains killed more than 2,000 people and left a trail of destruction across India and Bangladesh. Hard hit areas included Gujarat state in western India and Bihar in eastern India. Hundreds were killed. More than 600 died in Bihar alone. Tens of thousands were left homeless and battled hunger. Millions were affected. Home collapses, power was cut, roads were blocked. Crops and food supplies were destroyed. There were mudslides and overflowing dams and disease caused by drinking water contaminated with sewage.

Monsoon Floods in 2000

Monsoon floods in 2000 were the worst in South Asia in 15 years. More than 2,000 people died in South Asia (700 in Bangladesh, 1,200 India, 125 in Nepal and five Pakistan). Deaths were caused by drowning, landslides, electrocution and waterborne diseases. Some 15 million were forced from their homes. Roads and bridge were washed away. Food riots broke out among hungry people.

Particularly hard hit were Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Assam, Bhutan and Bangladesh. The Ganges and the Brahmaputra flooded. More than six million people were forced to flee their homes in India alone. In Assam and Arunachal Pradesh water in the Brahmaputra rose to record levels up steep walled valleys, producing devastating flash floods, Rhinos and elephants fled in a panic when levees were breached, blocking traffic and trampling people.

In September 2000, floods around Calcutta left at least 1,000 dead and marooned millions. Many people were also killed in Bangladesh.

Storms in India

In 1996, more than 160 people died when pilgrims on their way to Kashmir's Amaranth cave were trapped in blizzards and rain storms. Some 80,000 were on their to a cave believed to be the home of the Hindu god Shiva.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the deadliest hail storm ever killed 246 people at Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh, on April 20, 1888.

In July 1998, a devastating storm, with 100mph winds and an eight-foot storm surge, hit the Kandla area, north of Bombay in the west coast of India, killing as many as 10,000 people, many of them poor laborers who work the salt pans there. The storm blew down brick walls, deposited corpses in electric lines. Ships were cried so far in land they were abandoned. Places still smelled like death weeks after the storm was over.

In April 2003, thunderstorms in Assam in northeast India killed at least 34 people and injured 300. The storm uprooted trees and destroyed shanty dwelling.

Cyclones in India

World's Worst Recorded 20th Century Cyclones, Hurricanes, Typhoons and Other Storms (number of dead): 1) Bangladesh, Nov. 13, 1970 (300,000); 2) Bangladesh, Apr. 30, 1991 (139,000); 3) H. Bengal, India, Oct. 15-16, 1942 (40,000); 4) Bangladesh, June 1-2, 1965 (30,000); 5) Bangladesh, May 28-29, 1963 (22,000); 6) Bangladesh, May 11-12, (17,000); 7) Hong Kong, Sept. 18, 1906 (10,000); 8) Bangladesh, Dec. 15, 1965 (10,000); 9) Bangladesh, May 25, 1985 (10,000); 10) Caribbean, Hurricane Flora, Oct 4-8, 1963 (6,000); hurricane in Galveston, TX, Aug-Sept, 1900 (6,000).

In December 2003, at least 49 people were killed and million of dollars worth of crops were destroyed in southeastern India after cyclone 03B came ashore. Most of the victims died of exposure to cold winds and rain in Andhra Pradesh. Cyclones that hot India often come ashore in Orissa. A cyclone in Orissa in 1971 left 9,665 dead.

Great Orissa Cyclone

On October 29, 1999, a 100 miles stretch of coast of the state of Orissa was hit by a devastating cyclone, with 260mph winds and 20 foot surge waves. Over 3,500 people were killed. Two million were left homeless, seven million were marooned on high land and an estimated 15 million were affected by the storm.

What made the storm so devastating was the fact it stalled and lashed some places with heavy winds and sheets of rain for up to 36 hours straight. The flat landscape was covered by a huge sheet of water. Many victims were swept out to sea and never seen again. Affected areas were filled with the smell from bloated corpses and rotting carcasses of cattle. A government official who visited the site of the cyclone 10 days after it struck told AP, “I went literally through bodies. I walked on the road and there were bodies strew all over...Cremations are still going on. People are still locating bodies.”

On survivor told the Independent, "The wind speed was such that I thought the world was coming to an end." Another survivor told Time "Throughout the day of destruction had arrived, that God had finally decided to end the world to punish us for our sins." He managed to save himself by hanging on to a pole for 24 hours.

On man told Newsweek that he was awaken in the middle of the night by a wall of water nearly 30 foot high. He grabbed his wife and two children but lost his grip. He saw the water swallow his family. He was then knocked over and emerged from the water to watch the wave recede.

An official at an Indian relief agency told Time, "It is a disaster of unmitigated proportions, and we are helpless. The poor state of roads and railways make rescue efforts and disaster relief difficult. The Indian government sent in troops. Hungry mobs looted relief trucks and helicopters. Desperate people assaulted journalists and soldiers.

Devastation Caused by Great Orissa Cyclone

Villages with 5,000 people were wipe doff the face of the earth and replaced by lakes. Highways and railway embankments were washed away. Electric and telephone poles were snapped like twigs, plunging almost the entire into darkness. Even the chief minister had difficulty finding a phone to find out what was going on.

The air smelled of rotting carcasses of dead livestock floating the water. Cobras and other snakes were flushed out of their holes. The storm also devastated forests where elephants fed. Hungry elephants in search of food terrorized villagers.

The disaster wiped out crops and blocked the distribution f food. Villages were left without food or water or shelters. Grain stored at homes was ruined. Wells were contaminated by filth and dead animals. Many people went more than five days with out anything to eat and only contaminated water to drink.

People forced to drink contaminated water were hit with stomach diseases. Many died from gastrointestinal diseases and lack of food and water. The were worries of major epidemics of cholera or malaria. Medicines were air dropped with instructions on how to use them.

Earthquakes in India

India has experienced some of the world's most devastating earthquakes. An earthquake in April, 1905, estimated to have measured 8.6 on the Richter scale, killed 19,000 in Kangra District, northeastern Himachal Pradesh in northern India. An earthquake in 1934 in northern India, measuring 8.4 on the Richter scale, killed 10,700. An 8.7 earthquake in 1935 produced as much energy as 100,000 atom bombs and killed 30,000 people. This earthquake took place where the forces produced the Himalayas are most active. The noise produced by collapsing underground chambers was deafening.

Worst Recorded Earthquakes (number of dead): 1) Shaanxi, China, Jan. 24, 1556 (830,000); 2) Calcutta, India, Oct. 11, 1737 (300,000); 3) Tangshan, China, July 28, 1976 (242,000); 4) Antioch, Syria, May 20, 526 (250,000).

On August 21, 1988, a 6.7 earthquake in the Indian Himalayas about 100 miles southeast of Kathmandu triggered landslides, leveled villages and killed about 1,000 people. An earthquake on October 20, 1991 in the Himalayas of northern India that measured 6.1 on the Richter scale killed 768 people. A series of earthquakes on September 30, 1993 in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh in western India, with the largest measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale, killed around 30,000 people.

An earthquake in Uttarkashi District, Uttar Pradesh, in 1991 killed 1,600 people. In April 1995, an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale thousands left thousands dead in Himachal Pradesh. In April 1999, a 6.8 Richter-scale earthquake struck the Himalayan foothills near the town of Chamoli, near the Nepal and China borders. At least 110 people were killed.

Delhi sits in an area that is considered likely to be struck by a major earthquake. There is also a good change that a catastrophic earthquake will occur in Calcutta in the not too distant future. Few buildings have been built with earthquakes in mind. The death tolls are so high in some earthquakes because the construction of buildings is so shoddy. Often the cheapest materials are used and architects and engineers and not even consulted. There are few building codes. If there were it is not unlikely the inspectors would be bribed. In one part of India planners had to decide between to building 150 earthquake-resistant buildings or 200 that were not earthquake-resistant. They chose to building the 200.

Tectonic Activity of India

Many earthquakes occur in the Himalayan region of eastern India. Here, the northward-thrusting Indo-Australian plate collides with Eurasian plate, lifting the Himalayas by perhaps an inch annually, at rate that outpaces erosion. Some scientists have called the tectonic activity here the greatest continental collision on the planet.

The Indian subcontinent floated across the Indian Ocean, starting out around where Madagascar is today, and rammed into southern Asia tens of millions of year later. The collision took place about 55 million years ago. The force of the impact created the Himalayas, which are still rising.

Almost the entire Indian subcontinent sits on the Indian Plate, which is moving northeastward at a rate of about four centimeters (1.7 inches) a year relative to the Eurasian Plate which sits to north and east and embraces most of Asia and Europe. To the west is the Arabian Plate The collision of Indian plate and the Eurasian plate continues to push up the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau. A great amount of energy drives the collision and is released at the boundaries of the plates, which explains partly why India experience some devastating earthquakes.

Great Assam Earthquakes

An earthquake in the Assam Hills in 1897 killed thousands, reduced all masonry buildings to rubble and uplifted parts of the earth 45 feet in just three seconds. Scientists believe the quake was a "blind thrust" caused when two adjacent faults ruptured, causing an 8 magnitude quake and part of the Sillong Plateau to shoot up.

Scientists at Oxford and the University of Colorado reported, "the acceleration from the epicenter of the earthquake some 16 kilometers deep exceeded that of gravity, causing boulders, tombstones and even people to be tossed into the air." These kinds of earthquakes are very rare, occurring about once every 3,000 years, but when they occur they are catastrophic.

May Sweet wrote to her sister Mrs. Godfrey from Shillong on June 28, 1897: “At 5.30 on Saturday last, the 12th June was as usual, and 30 seconds afterwards was completely in ruins. I was riding on the Gauhati Road with Mr. Monaghan, and suddenly we heard a queer rumbling sound and then trees swayed every way. Luckily by instinct we both turned sharply to the left and galloped up the hill as far as we could and find a place. We had crossed the bridge which would have gone down under us. I can’t possibly describe the sensation as it was so totally different from anything I had ever experienced. I did not know whether I was on my horse or not or on the land or in the air. I could do nothing as the ground was all in a whirl. I know I looked once at Mr. M. and he was as pale as death. We neither of us thought of an earthquake, we thought it was a landslip on the Gauhati Road. Of course, when we got up to the mission we saw something of the terrible ruin, the poor missionaries, they were all on the road with their houses flat on the ground and old Miss Jones in a dying state. We stopped to make her as comfortable as possible and then rode on towards the station (she died a day or two afterward). We could not go by the ordinary way until we got to the ground as it was all burst open and there were continued shocks the whole time. It was terrible riding home. Until we got to the bazaar I never realized what must have happened in the [hill] Station. [Source: -]

“Today we’ve had very few shocks and hope they are nearly over—but they are always worse at night. A great many people are in the back sheds, and have two or three sharing a mattress. Another awful thing was that the water supply ran out and there was a fear of Cholera breaking out. Potatoes too were scarce as everything was buried but they are being dug up by degree and they say that in a few weeks the road will be made for fresh ones to be brought up—of course everything was an awful price. The ponies are fed on 1 seer pack or turned out to grass. Pearl behaved beautifully all the time. The only way they kept their feet was that they galloped. I really am most comfortable now for have got bashas built and I suppose we’ll have to live in them for months. Every day we dig a few more things out of the bungalow also; it is very slow work. Still I have a good many things that are presentable after being cleaned. -

An earthquake in 1950 dramatically altered the terrain of Assam and changed the course of Brahmaputra River. Although resulting in less extensive loss of life than the 1897 quake it left more than 1,500 dead.

Great Gujarat Earthquake

At around 8:30am on January 27, 2001, a devastating earthquake that measured 7.9 on the Richter scale struck eastern India, killing at least 18,000, injuring 166,000 and destroying or damaging more than 1 million homes. The worst earthquake in India in half a century, it lasted about 45 seconds, and rocked Pakistan and was felt as away as Nepal.

The hardest hit areas were in the state of Gujarat. The epicenter was 15 miles north of Bhuj, a city of around 150,000, where more than 6,000 people died. Particularly hard hit was the town of Anjar where perhaps 80 percent of the population perished. One survivor said, “It was like sitting on a boat caught in a storm.”

The earthquake was powerful but the high numbers of deaths and damage was attributed to shoddy construction, high population densities in some of the areas struck and to the vast area shaken by the earthquake (high rises fell in Ahmadabad, more than 200 miles from the epicenter) and the high number of aftershocks (the quake was followed by 83 aftershocks),

The earthquake was caused by a blind thrust rupture along a fault similar to the one in Assam in 1897. Gujarat sits just off the Allah (Wall of God) fault, the site of major earthquakes in 1819 and 1956. But the most unusual thing about the quake is that it sits in an area far from the tectonic plate boundaries, where most earthquakes occur. The presence of earthquakes on uniform plate rock explains why the earthquake caused devastation over such a large area.

Victims and Survivors of the Great Gujarat Earthquake

In the town of Bhachau 400 school girls and 50 teachers were killed when their concrete school collapsed on them. The dead were doused in paraffin and set on fire. In Anjar, scores of students and teachers participating in a parade died when the buildings along the parade repute toppled on top of them.

In Bhuju ,most of the members of wedding party, including the groom, died when the building where they the wedding was held collapsed. Treating the injured was difficult im Bhuj because the main hospital was destroyed, killing around 150 patients and much of the medical staff. The busiest place in town was the cremation grounds. Normally one person is cremated at a time but after the earthquake 10 people were cremated at a time around the clock.

In Anjar, a 11-year-old boy who survived for three days was removed from a collapsed building after his leg was amputated with a large knife, a hammer, chisel and a carpenter's saw. In Bhuj, a brother and sister survived for 10 days before being pulled out of the wreckage. A woman from Bhachau who was rescued after six days told Newsweek, “I kept calling for help. But when no one came I gave up. When I head voices calling my name I thought it was Yama, the god of death. It was only after I saw the sunshine that realized it was the angels of God who had come to my aid.”

Damage Caused by the Great Gujarat Earthquake

In Ahmadabad, the state's commercial center, nearly 200 buildings, some as tall as 10 stories, collapsed. Many of the buildings were poorly constructed, with concrete made with too much sand. Some buildings were described as looking like "sand castles buffeted by a wave." Fortunately, two nuclear power plants im the area were not damaged.

The earthquake and aftershocks also damaged ancient Indus Valley civilization structures, 100-year-old Hindu temples and priceless museum pieces. In Ahmedabad, a 15th century built by Emperor Ahmed Shah was badly damaged. Some beautiful 15th and 16th century sculptures and art work were badly damaged when a museum collapsed. In Bhuj almost everything, old or new, disappeared in a heap.

Relief for the Great Gujarat Earthquake

The Red Cross, the Green Crescent, other NGOs, the military and Hindu extremists sent teams to Gujarat to assist in the relief efforts. Since partition in 1947, India has refused to accept foreign disaster aid. It broke this tradition at Gujarat, accepting about $5 million each from the United States, Japan and Britain and smaller amounts from 30 other countries. The damage was so widespread that relief was slow in coming in many areas. Aid groups reported large scale theft of relief supplies and the sale of these supplies by profiteers.

Employing what has become known as "earthquake diplomacy," Pakistan provided aid and sent planes, blankets and tents to India after the earthquake. India sought $1.5 billion in loans from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and other institutions to help rebuild Gujarat.

The quake damaged 9,600 elementary schools and 2,000 secondary schools, leaving hundreds of children without a school.

Avalanches and Landslides in India

One avalanche on the Jammu-Kashmir highway killed more than 250 people by burying cars and knocking buses into steep ravines. An avalanche of boulders and mud near the Himalayan resort town of Kulu buried 80 people alive in 1995.

In February 2005, at least 39 people were killed in avalanches in Kashmir More than 171 were killed by avalanches and extreme cold.

A total of 239 people died from landslides in Himalayas in 1998.

Great Tsunami of 2004

See Asia

A few months after the tsunami Doctors Without Borders began asking donors to send unrestricted funds and tracked down ten of thousands of people who had already donated money and asked then if the money could be used for other causes.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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