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[In the aftermath of the Great Assam Earthquake of 15 August 1950, the

Honorable Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru visited Assam during 4-7
September 1950. On 9th of September 1950, the following was broadcast to the
nation over All India Radio, New Delhi]

Friends and Comrades,

I am going to speak to you tonight about Assam, where recently a great


earthquake brought death and disaster to many, and to some extent changed
even the outward features of the land. I have visited this border province of ours
on several occasions in the past, when I was more carefree and had some
leisure to float about on the broad bosom of that noble river, the Brahmaputra.
Now, I went there summoned by the earthquake on a less peasant errand.

Look at the map of India. You will find Assam on the northeastern corner
bordering Tibet and China and Burma and Pakistan. Thus, from international
point of view, this province of ours has a very special significance. In the old days
also it was a frontier province, but the North East frontier was not considered
particularly important and all our attention was concentrated on the North West
frontier. Now, changing conditions have made this northern-east corner vital to us
in many respects and I have no doubt that its importance will grow. From being a
neglected outpost of an empire, it has become the meeting place of many
nations and it might become in the future a highway between some of those
countries and ours.

Within the borders of Assam and adjuring it are large tribal tracts, where many
tribes in various stages of development have lived for ages past. Do not imagine
that all these tribes are backward. Some of them are certainly backward in many
ways, but others have developed their own peculiar institutions, often of a
democratic nature, and are in some ways fairly advanced. All of them are very
attractive, or so I have found them.

Ever since I first visited Assam many years ago, I have been attracted by the
beautiful valley of the Brahmaputra and the mountains and forests that lie
beyond. The people there have their own distinctive features. They are simple,
unsophisticated and likeable. There is a very unusual combination of semi-
tropical scenery and snow capped mountains. The Brahmaputra, after a long
journey through Tibet, rushes down through mighty gorges into the Assam valley
where it becomes a placid river, sometimes spreading out almost like a sea.

Perhaps many of you think of Assam in connection with tea. These tea gardens,
well tended and attractive looking, cover a large part of Assam. Apart from this,
the chief cultivation of the State is paddy. Orange trees and pineapples and
bamboos and palms and the beautiful and graceful areca tree, from which our
supari comes, abound in the State.

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In this peaceful State rather slow moving, came the sudden shock of the
earthquake. It was the evening of August 15, when all over India some kind of
celebrations had been organized for the Independence Day. Soon after half past
seven, the earth trembled and shock and heaved up or subsided and houses
tumbled down and great landslides occurred in the hills. Frightened people
rushed about in the dark, not knowing what the fate of their neighbours might be.
It took some time for people to get information of what had happened, because
telegraph and telephone wires broke and other normal means of communication
were disrupted. Slowly news trickled through and we realize the full extent of
what has happened because several parts were completely cut off and it has not
yet been possible to reach them.

It is said that the epicenter of the earthquake was somewhere in Tibet, near a
place called Rima, some miles from the Assam frontier. We know nothing of what
has happened in Tibet or on the mountainous regions of the border. As a result
of the landslides, rivers were blocked up for a while, and then broke through, they
came down with rush and a roar, a high wall of water sweeping down and
flooding large areas and washing away villages and fields and gardens. These
rivers have changed their colour and carried some sulphurous and other material
which spread a horrible smell for some distance around them. The fish in them
died. The remains of villages, animals, including cattle and elephants and large
quantities of timber floated down these raging waters. Paddy fields were
destroyed, stocks of grains were washed away and some tea gardens also
suffered great damage.

It is difficult to estimate the damage that has been done. The loss of human life
was not so great as it might have been in a more populous area. Probably not
more than a thousand people have perished. Most of them died by being crushed
by the landslides or swept away by the rivers in sudden flood. Some may have
died or may be dying for lack of food. There are large areas still, more especially
in the North Lakhimpur district, east of river Subansiri, which are very difficult of
access and are water-logged. Even when one crosses this angry river Subansiri,
and that is a difficult task, one has to face a combination of flood and forest, and
internal movement not easy. There are numbers of people marooned in different
parts of this area in North Lakhimpur. Beside this area there are the hills which
are even more inaccessible and about which we have practically no information
yet. There is no doubt, however, that the tribal people who live there have
suffered and are suffering greatly.

The damage to public buildings and public works has been very heavy. National
highways have been torn and twisted and have sometimes a strange, vertically
wavy appearance. Bridges have been washed away or broken; railway lines
have snapped or are twisted. Some of these roads and tracts will have to be
realigned completely for long distances.

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When the earthquake came, three parties, consisting of the Assam Rifles and
some of our army men, were on their way to our frontier outpost. One such party,
comprising twenty-five men of the Assam Rifles and sixty porters, was suddenly
buried in the heavy landslides. They managed to escape, however, through
rolling down the rocks except for four porters who lost their lives. But they lost
everything they had- food, clothing, utensils, arms and ammunition, wireless set
etc. They were marooned for a number of days without food. Ultimately a rescue
party reached them. The second and third party also had strange and exiting
experiences and had to be rescued right on the borders of Tibet. Some of them
in fact could not come back at all, because the bridge over the river had been
washed away and the only way for them was into Tibet. In the same way some
Tibetans were cut off and marooned on the Indian side of the border and could
not go back.

These are the difficulties which we have had to face. The Government of India
naturally wanted to give the utmost help. The Air Force sent a number of Dakotas
for dropping food in those areas which were cut off. Everyday our aircraft fly often
through bad weather, taking rice and other foodstuff, and drop them for these
starving people. We have now sent some smaller planes also for reconnaissance
work as well as to land some of our officers in these marooned areas, if that is
possible. In addition to our own aircraft, two small planes belonging to the tea
companies have also done excellent work in carrying and dropping food in these
areas. Then there is our army, which is rapidly trying to build up new roads and
bridges and give such other help as they can. They are now organizing small
parties of stout hearted men and strong swimmers who will brave the raging
torrents and enter into that difficult region which has been cut off from us since
the earthquake. Our railwaymen and engineers are working hard to get the
railway function again. The restoration of communications is of the first
importance.

Meanwhile, the Brahmaputra, spreading as far as eye can reach, flows along in
an angry mood. It has changed its course at places and, at Dibrugarh, is cutting
away into parts of the inhabited city. Some buildings and roads have already
been smashed and consumed by its swirling waters. Our engineers are hard at
work to stop this continuous erosion. Not much can be done at present. Later,
more permanent methods will have to be employed.

Volunteer relief societies, local as well as from outside, are doing good work. I
should specially like to mention the fine work being done by the staff and
students of the Medical College at Dibrugarh. Here, in Assam, is a chance for
every able-bodied man and woman of the State to help in relief and
reconstruction. And so, while I know that Assam badly needs every kind of help
from other parts of India, I called upon the people there to rely on themselves
and to help each other and their province at this time of crisis.

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I have told you briefly of conditions in Assam now. How can we help, as help we
must, to the utmost of our capacity? It will do no good for large numbers of
people to rush to Assam, for they will only become a burden there. Selected
persons with special knowledge or capacity might be able to help. We can all
help by subscribing generously to the Governor’s relief fund. I shall gladly accept
and forward any subscriptions that are sent to me. That is the least we can do.

We can also help by strictly conserving the nation’s food supply and preventing
all waste and misuse. Every State Government must enforce its procurement
schemes so that all available food can be utilized to the best advantage, not only
in Assam but in other areas of scarcity. Even in Assam, while there is scarcity
and famine and starvation in some areas, most of which are cut off from us for
the present, there are other areas which are surplus. Effective procurement
schemes must function there immediately as elsewhere.

Those who desire to profit by this emergency and hoard food grains or try to sell
them at high prices in the black market must be considered enemies of society
and should be dealt with as such. There can be no greater crime than for a
person to make a profit at the cost of death to his fellow men. There has been
often enough a certain timidity in this matter and the law with its interminable
delays and complications frighten people. But the law is good enough and is
meant to prevent evil and help in good deeds. It is men of strength that we need
to enforce the law without fear or favour.

Disaster has descended upon many parts of our country. Assam has suffered
most, but other States have had great floods and great losses. The only way to
meet this is with a stern determination not to allow either nature’s vagaries or
men’s follies to come in the way of the work we have to do.

On such occasions one inevitably thinks of the precarious hold that life has. A
slight tremor of the earth’s surface, a faint ripple, causes mountains to tumble,
rivers to change their courses, and houses to collapse, and men to die. Whether
it is long or short, life has the same inevitable end, but while it lasts, we can make
it worthwhile or futile, noble or petty and mean. It is not by submission to evil or
surrender even to nature’s challenge or a mere passive looking on at what
happens or empty prayer that life can be made worthwhile. The challenge has
come to us in many ways in this country. It is up to us to answer that challenge in
every department of life and public affairs with faith and confidence in ourselves
and in our country.

Jai Hind.

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