On 15 August 1950, communities across India were marking Independence Day – the third such commemoration since gaining independence from the British Empire in 1947.
At 7:39pm, a large earthquake struck, the epicentre of which was in the Mishmi Hills of present-day Arunachal Pradesh, near Tibet. It measured 8.69 in magnitude and is the world’s ninth largest earthquake recorded since seismic measurements began in 1900.[i]
In Assam, the earthquake destroyed village infrastructure, roads, railway lines (see photo) and significantly altered the region’s topography. These impacts killed 1530 people (and even more across the border in Tibet).[ii] According to the Indian Red Cross Society: ‘[t]he earth trembled violently, dwellings tumbled down, great landslides occurred in the hills and rivers changed their course… the entire affected area [was cut off] from the outside world’.[iii] English botanist Frank Kingdon-Ward was travelling in the area at the time and also described the initial earthquake shock as lasting ‘five or six minutes. It was certainly of long duration and extreme violence’.[iv]
The independent Indian nation was only a few years old and the government was keen to launch a humanitarian response, deploying a team to assess the needs and ready the supplies. According to historian Guyot-Réchard, a ‘frenzy of sympathy and humanitarian action’ came from Across India and overseas.[v] Medical supplies, clothing, blankets and food were rushed to the area.
Recovery was slow in Assam as the aftershocks were severe, and the area was affected by serious flooding just a few years later. Monsoon rains have regularly caused severe flooding-related disasters in the region, including this year. Assam has yet to experience another earthquake of the magnitude of 1950 (or it’s predecessor 1897), though seismologists say the collision zone between the plates beneath this area pose one of the highest seismic hazard risks in the world.[vi]
Jessica Field, (originally posted 15 August 2019 on previous blog site)
[i] United States Geological Survey, ’20 largest earthquakes in the world’, https://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/browse/largest-world.php
[ii] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, https://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/nndc/struts/results?eq_0=3950&t=101650&s=13&d=22,26,13,12&nd=display
[iii] Indian Red Cross Society,Thirtieth Annual Report, 1950, (New Delhi: IRCS, 1950), p.4.
[iv] F. Kingdon-Ward, ‘The Assam Earthquake of 1950’, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 119, No. 2 (Jun., 1953): 169-182, p.172.
[v] B. Guyot-Réchard, ‘Reordering a Border Space: Relief, rehabilitation, and nation-building in northeastern India after the 1950 Assam earthquake’, Modern Asian Studies,vol. 49, no. 4, (2015): 931–962, p.941.
[vi] Berkeley Seismology Lab, (2017), https://seismo.berkeley.edu/blog/2017/08/15/today-in-earthquake-history-assam-1950.html