With 54% of India’s total land prone to earthquakes, are we prepared to handle it?


EQ pic (1)

By Harshmeet Singh

The brutal 7.9 magnitude earthquake in Nepal has caused unprecedented loss of life and physical damage. While the official death figure, at the time of writing this, is over 2,500 in Nepal and 51 in India, it would surely rise exponentially as the rescue efforts intensify in the following days. As the world rallies behind the Nepalese people and help pours in from all quarters, there is only thought in everyone’s mind – ‘Is there nothing we can do against the nature’s fury?’

Despite galloping scientific achievements that the mankind has witnessed, we have never been able to question the invincibility of Nature. While the textbooks are filled with lessons on kinds of earthquake, there is still no breakthrough on any earthquake prediction mechanism. In such a scenario, the best bet for any country, to deal with such a horrendous event is to be prepared for the worst, while hoping for the best. With the Himalayas making India an active seismic zone, it would be worth taking a look at India’s preparedness to handle strong earthquakes.

Unlike some other natural disasters, there is a fair demarcation of the territories around the world which are prone to earthquakes due to their location over major fault lines and highly seismic zones. According to Geographical statistics, close to 54% of India’s total land is earthquake prone. A number of major Indian cities come under seismic activity zones IV and V, implying that they are highly susceptible to devastating earthquakes.

Northern India, in particular, has multiple cities coming under these zones. Add to that the vertical growth that our cities are witnessing over the past decade or so, and you would be able to picture how a major earthquake can leave us in tatters.

Earthquake resistant structures

India’s national capital, Delhi, falls into seismic zone IV, thus making it highly prone to major earthquakes. In 2007, under the ‘Indo-US capacity building exercise for disaster management’, five buildings in the capital were retrofitted in order to ensure that they sustain future earthquakes with minimal damage. Retrofitting is a mechanism through which an existing building is modified, using certain strategies, to conform to the present day standards for earthquake resistance.

Soon after, the National disaster management authority issued specific guidelines for ‘Seismic Retrofitting of Deficient Buildings and Structures’. But unfortunately, most builders turned a blind eye towards such guidelines.

In 2011, NDMA said that close to 4,000 multi-storied buildings in Ahmedabad won’t survive a high magnitude earthquake due to a faulty design. The situation was even worse in Delhi in 2013. Talking about Delhi, a senior official from the NDMA said, “It is hard to imagine the damage caused by an earthquake with high intensity. The city has over 25 lakh buildings; a majority of them do not adhere to the safety code, nor have they been constructed under proper technical supervision,”

National Retrofit Program

In 2014, the NDMA, with assistance from experts from IITs and ministries, came out with guidelines on ‘seismic retrofitting’. Launched under the Home Ministry, it was called the ‘National Retrofit Program’. The short term aim of the program was to retrofit critical structures and buildings such as hospitals and schools on an immediate basis.

According to these norms issued under the program, “A special class of buildings has emerged in a big way across the country, called open ground storey buildings (or buildings on stilts). This is a solution being provided by architects to solve the parking crisis in urban India, but it does not address earthquake safety of these buildings. These do not conform to prevalent Indian standards for earthquake safety. These buildings are flexible and weak in the open ground storey compared to the storeys above,”

According to the NDMA, the devastating Bhuj earthquake in 2001 saw a number of weak RC (reinforced concrete) buildings bite the dust, whereas many government owned buildings, which had an open ground storey, stood the test since they were in accordance with the ‘Indian Seismic Code’.

Other Steps taken

In 2007, the NDMA also made it mandatory for all the new constructions in Mumbai and New Delhi to abide by the earthquake resistant designs. The RBI had also issued orders to all the banks, asking them to deny infrastructure loans to any building which is not abiding by the earthquake resistant structures’ guidelines. But unfortunately, these norms are flouted more often than not. In most cases, there is no formal scrutiny of the building’s design before the loan is approved by the Banks.

Although it is mandatory to approve the structural design from the civic authorities before construction, the process has taken the shape of a mere formality. The structural engineers, who are supposed to ensure that the buildings’ designs are earthquake resistant, seldom care to go into such details.

Although a number of surveys, to earmark ‘dangerous’ buildings, have been conducted by the civic authorities over the past few years, it is hard to see any concrete outcome. Building audits do not find a place in the priority list of the Governments. And with high-rise buildings making their way into tier 1 and tier 2 cities, the risk of a huge life loss is imminent.

In December 2014, the Supreme Court directed the central Government to ensure that all the upcoming infrastructures in the country display their ‘earthquake resistant category’ and define the implications of their category, as per the Government’s definitions. Even after the apex court’s judgement, majority of the new buildings have been overlooking these norms.

Are we ready to face an Earthquake?

The one word answer to this question is ‘No’! There is a high chance that the building where you are currently residing isn’t earthquake resistant because the structural engineer passed the structure plan without giving it a second thought. Considering that more than half of India’s territory comes under an active seismic zone, this imagination could very well turn into a reality. Till then, we can only hope that our builder chose to follow the norms rather than bypassing them for an easy passage.