In what looks like heightened seismic activity, the first half of April has seen at least eight major earthquakes, two of which have been on the periphery of India — in northeast Afghanistan and Myanmar. Of these, three in Japan in quick succession and one in Ecuador soon after measured over 7.3 on the Richter scale and caused extensive devastation and death. Any quake of such or higher magnitude in a thickly populated and extremely vulnerable country like India would cause enormous damage to property and infrastructure — and to human and livestock lives. An earthquake with an intensity of 7.6 on the Richter scale in Jammu and Kashmir and adjoining areas in October 2005 had led to 85,000 deaths besides other economic losses.
Nearly 59 per cent of India is perpetually prone to earthquakes. Vast stretches of the Northeast, Bihar, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, and Gujarat are in the seismically most active Zone V. The bulk of the northern plains, including the national capital of Delhi, are in the next most dangerous area — Zone IV. Worse still, the home ministry’s National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) has warned that an earthquake of more than 8.2 is due any time in the Himalayan region where any resultant landslides could multiply the damage manifold. The geological stress in the Northeast’s hills, due partly to frequent tremor-driven weakening of the Himalayas, and the colliding of the Himalayan plate with the Indo-Burmese plate, has put the entire region on high alert. Besides, seismologists feel that the tectonic plates west of the epicentre of the recent Nepal earthquake are still locked, indicating that another trigger is about to go off.
Two significant points about earthquakes need to be borne in mind. One, unlike many other natural disasters, earthquakes can neither be predicted precisely – in terms of timing and scale – nor prevented. And two, quakes do not kill people; collapsing buildings do. Continuous preparedness is thus the only way to keep the tremors damage to the minimum. Poor people dwelling in multi-storied tenements built on weak foundations and without any quake-proofing – as is the case with most slum areas in small and big towns, including Delhi – are the most at risk during earthquakes. Better urban regulation and facilities are needed. Even existing endangered and unsafe houses should be repaired and suitably restructured and reinforced, even with government assistance, if need be.
The Bureau of Indian Standards has put together a large number of building codes for different situations, most of which are effective against earthquakes. The awareness of these codes is woefully poor, if not missing altogether, except in the case of builders in the organised sector. As a result, compliance is even poorer. Such unconcern is untenable. The key to tremor-resistant buildings is strong foundation and construction based on interlocked concrete pillars. Researchers have come out with numerous cost-effective designs and construction materials, such as concrete or mud houses reinforced with bamboo, for building houses for the poor. These need to be promoted in risk-prone areas to safeguard precious lives, property and vital infrastructure during earthquakes.