Heritage Times

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The Great Earthquake of Bihar in 1934


(Following is a reproduction of the account written by P.C Roy Choudhury)

On January, 15th, 1934, at about 2.13 p.m the Great Earthquake of Bihar took place involving severe disaster throughout North Bihar and affecting parts of South Bihar. Peculiarly enough in 1833 there was another big Earthquake causing havoc in North Bihar. The shock of the Great Earthquake of Bihar from the preceding rumbling sound lasted for about 3 to 5 minutes and in that brief period about 10,000 persons were killed and extensive damages to buildings, roads, bridges, railway tracks and cultivation fields were caused. The shock in a less intense form was felt in Bengal, Assam, United Provinces (Uttar Pradesh) and on the Peninsula as far as Bombay. 

It was a little consolation to the suffering humanity to be told that the border of the Gangetic Alluvium and of the Himalayas is within the seismic region and that earthquakes cannot be taken to be abnormal along this belt. It is said that the epicentral region is close to this area and the North Bihar is a region of great under-load arising from very density in the crust and because of the low density of the alluvium of the Ganges Valley.

Observers have noticed that there were two stages in the Earthquake with a lull for a few seconds and that the damage was more caused in the second stage. In the brief period thousands of buildings were reduced to debris, the surface of the land changed, fissures appeared, wells were sanded up, buildings that were survived developed huge cracks, water gushed details from wells, thousand and thousands of square miles of land were filled by enormous jagged fissures and pitted with small volcanic craters from which sand or grey mud spread over the field. Communications were severely tampered with. Roads were tom and alignments were changed. Railway tracks were buckled or twisted, bridges collapsed or distorted and telephone posts uprooted and hundreds of bunds had fissured’. The reaction of the earthquake on rivers was remarkable.

Mr. Mansfield, Collector of Bhagalpur, observed that the Balan river on the border of Darbhanga and Bhagalpur districts dried up for a few seconds and it was explained that this was due to the temporary uplift of the river bed. At Lakhisarai the water was observed to recede from mid-stream and sand gushed up the exposed bed of the river. Some river beds had moved away from their direction and Captain L. E. Whitehead, Pilot Superintendent of I. G. Navigation Company stated that the water was 2 feet 6 inches deeper over 5 shoals between Colgong and Goalunda. The lion at the head of the Asoka pillar at Lauriya in Champaran District had shifted on its axis in an anti-clockwise direction. The clock of the tower in the Patna Secretariat had stopped.

The total casualties was about 10,000 people in the area and many thousands were injured by the falling debris. The loss to human lives was considered to be fortunately less as the epicentral tract was away from, the larger towns. The loss to livestock was enormous. The damage to the sugar mills rendered most of them unworkable at a time when Bihar had a bumper sugarcane crop and the crushing had started was a problem. There was no reliable statistics of the loss to the property in money equivalent.

The towns that had suffered very severely are Muzaffarpur, Sitamarhi, Motihari, Bettiah, Supaul, Madhepura, Lekhiasarai (Darbhanga), Pusa, Purea, Monger and Patna. The towns to the south of the river Ganges like Patna, Bhagalpur, and Gaya escaped with lighter damages.

Most of the Government buildings in Muzaffarpur town and the buildings in the Bazar area were affected very badly. Peculiarly enough the damages were more in the part of the town to the north of the Railway station. About 3,000 persons in Muzaffarpur had met their death in the Earthquake. Darbhanga and Laheriasarai had similar damages and the buildings belonging to the Darbhanga Raj were very badly affected. Most of the Government buildings in Laheriasarai town had collapsed. Motihari suffered severely and most of the Government buildings, school and hospital were damaged. The town of Madhepura had subsided and buildings had cracked.

In Purnea the cast iron piles of a bridge between the civil lines and the railway station were broken. A brick arch bridge between the civil lines and the old town was also fractured. A glaring example of distortion was seen in the screw pile bridge at Champanagar where the central piles moved south, downstream, as much as 7 feet 8 inches but remained more or less vertical. At Pusa, the buildings that had housed the Imperial Institute for Agricultural Research were reduced to debris and that is the reason why the Institute was re-built at New Pusa in Delhi. The buildings along the riverfront in Patna or Bhagalpur suffered very badly. The clock in the tower of the Secretariat stopped at 2.16 p.m. The High Court and the Government House were damaged severely. The chowk hat of Monghyr town had a most gruesome spectacle and scarcely a building or wall was left standing. The human casualty in Monghyr was very severe.

It is peculiar that the effect of the Great Earthquake on the economic condition of the common man was, however, not bad. Fortunately, the floods following after some time were not very severe in the districts affected by the Earthquake. Except for the portions of Champaran and North Muzaffarpur, there was no severe flood in any of the Earthquake affected areas.

The next crops in the affected areas were not bad. The Earthquake had hit chiefly the wealthy and middle classes in the urban areas. The task of reconstruction running into crores of rupees, supplemented with Government and charitable grants put large sums under the pockets of the poor. The post¬ earthquake reconstruction of roads, buildings, bridges, etc. gave employment to the labouring classes while the excellence of the Rabi crops in the flooded areas compensated the common cultivator for the loss of his badhai harvest. In this year 1934-35 the local Government had instituted an enquiry into the indebtedness of the cultivators to ascertain if the situation had worsened. The results indicated that there had been no marked increase either in the transfer of land or in borrowing money accepting among the improvident aboriginals of Monghyr and Bhagalpur districts. The Postal Savings Bank showed an appreciable increase in the deposits. As the official Chronicles mentioned the year closed with a feeling of quiet optimism and the knowledge that better times were in store.

Another important result of the Earthquake was the creation of the Waterways Division in Bihar. Shortly after the Bihar Earthquake of 1934, the social workers under a mistaken idea started constructing a bandh across an innumerable waterways blocking the roads and railways, culverts and drainage channels. As it was felt that what was needed after the Earthquake that the drainage of the sub-soil water should be properly guided the Tirthut Waterways Division came into being. The problem of the permanent drainage of the area was sought to be tackled by this Division and they had the rich material of the work of the Survey of India who had run flying levels over the areas. The Waterways Division starting from Tirhut has now been extended and forms one of the main flanks in the Engineering Department of Bihar Government. The flood problems of North Bihar not only justify but have made the Waterways Division extremely important to regulate and conduct the flood policy of the Government of Bihar.

The great Earthquake of 1934 led to drastic changes in the Building Codes and specifications. Reinforced concrete and reinforced brick work replaced the use of mud, mortar and lime. Portland cement subjected to rigid tests replaced mud mortar. The new specifications promulgated by the Government laying stress on the use of horizontal reinforced concrete of R.B. bands at different levels in the structure interconnected with R.C. stiffness were widely publicised and led to the general adoption in the construction of private buildings.

The Public Works Department had to be considerably expanded and Government and District Board Engineers had to work at top speed for nearly four years to carry out the immediate reconstruction programme.

The earthquake had removed many antiquated buildings and was directly responsible for the construction of numerous modern buildings, roads and bridges in which cement, steel and reinforced concrete played an important role.


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Saquib Salim

Saquib Salim is a well known historian under whose supervision various museums (Red Fort, National Library, IFFI, Jallianwala Bagh etc.) were researched. To his credit Mr. Salim has more than 400 published articles on history, politics, culture and literature in English and Hindi. Before pursuing his research and masters in modern Indian History from JNU, he was an electrical engineering student at AMU. Presently, he works as a freelance/ independent history researcher, writer and works at www.awazthevoice.in