The air around the crematorium in Dujiangyan village situated in the western Chinese province of Sichuan, is acrid with smoke and disinfectant as families bid farewell to victims of China’s calamitous earthquake, all too many of them children. At Juyuan Middle School near this town, just south of the quake’s epicenter, scattered classroom chairs sit in the open sports field where students huddled the night of the earthquake, fearful of aftershocks. The teachers’ rooms held up well. However, the four-story main building was nearly destroyed, with about 900 students lost. One small four-story section remains, resembling a lighthouse in size and appearance, of what was once a large complex of classrooms. One school collapsed completely, burying all children within it, in Yingxio Town, Wenchuan County. Children’s cries could be heard on and off. Some parents and members of the public formed a voluntary rescue team, but it was hard to take effective measures without rescue experts and specialized equipment. The First Middle School of Beichuan County has more than 2,600 students. As of May 14, there were still around 1,000 student buried in the ruins. The cries from most of them can still be heard. In a northern rural district of Chongqing, about 200 miles from the epicenter, a four-story building collapsed at Center Elementary School, killing at least five students, according to local media accounts. Yet the apartments and houses behind the school were still standing.
These are some of the heart breaking excerpts, from news reports, that appeared in the media after the quake. What is especially tragic and sad is the fact, that other buildings in the area, even when much older, survived the quake but newly built school buildings crashed like a heap of sand, taking away lives of thousands of innocent children. An article published on the internet by an anonymous Shanghai structural engineer, says that although it is difficult to judge just from the photo and video, the explosion like destruction of those school buildings made him suspect that not enough steel enforcement bars were used due to cost cutting. Chinese have a name for public facility buildings that are constructed at low cost and low quality—’Tofu Waste Projects’, or in other words Jelly buildings. According to officials, at least 6,898 schoolrooms had collapsed in Sichuan province, where the quake was centered. People suspect that some of the schools, built barely 10 years ago, collapsed because contractors used shoddy materials and wanted to save money.
The earthquake was not man made, but collapse of so many school buildings was certainly a man made disaster waiting to happen. It was found at many places that building columns were filled with sand and mud, not cement. Not enough concrete was used to support the iron bars.
Further, what is most painful to heart is the fact that most of the schoolchildren, now dead, were the only child of their parents due to China’s One Child policy. Parents in their middle age saw with their open eyes, their young children in teens, being snatched away. An entire generation is lost in this area. For these parents, the children were their hope and security for the future. Now they have nothing. This man made disaster is really a shame of our time and all of us must put our heads down for it.
I do not consider myself a commentator on state policies, particularly of other countries. However, I am sure that when there is nobody to put a question to a Government, this is what would happen. Even with excruciating slowness of an open government, which is elected and therefore answerable to its people, chances of such things happening and that too at this scale, are much lower.
Lastly, one thought troubles me the most. We happen to live now in twenty first century. Why should someone tell me and later enforce a limit on the size of my family? Isn’t it an insult to my intelligence and my decision-making capacity?
26th May 2008