Is quake-prone India prepared for Japan-like tremors?

Wed16Mar11

The world has been witnessing with awe and shock the devastation caused by the massive earthquake, the Tsunami that followed and the fears of nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan. The reality horror show, live on TV with its mind numbing images must surely have left a mark on millions. The helplessness of one of the most advanced nation in the wake of natures fury must also be a humbling experience.

However, while millions of images have flooded our TV screens, the one footage that has had me completely mesmerised, and petrified, has been the one where skyscrapers in Tokyo What reaction does this video evoke in you? For me, there are two. One is that of amazement at how the skyscrapers withstand such intense tremors even as they sway. And secondly, and more importantly, the technique that is behind such construction and the apparent seriousness with which all building norms must have been followed.

The thoughts that followed these reactions, however, were not amazing. Instead, they gripped me with fear. These are the thoughts about the way buildings are constructed in our country. As I repeatedly have been saying during my posts on commonwealth games linked construction activities, we are a master at cutting corners and bypassing building bylaws. In fact, even the investigative agencies found that most of the quality certificates for games related construction were forged. It was little wonder that stadiums leaked on the day of their inauguration, or bridges fell days before their inauguration. It is all due to our chalta hai attitude combined with a corrupt builder/babu/politician nexus that makes us circumvent every guideline, with impunity and care a hoot for consequences.

And if the games related construction is scary, spare a thought for the National Capital Region of India that includes areas such as Gurgaon and Noida, two of the fastest developing areas of India. Both these areas together would perhaps now have more high rise apartment blocks than the rest of the country, including Mumbai. And the number is going up all the time.

Please remember, India, thanks to its sub-continental plate driving into Asia, is exceedingly earthquake prone. Based on this, the country has been divided into four seismic zones with the least vulnerable being zone 2 and most being 5. Delhi lies on a very high risk zone 4 that makes it highly vulnerable to large tremors. But do you think even for a moment that the private builders in the area would have seriously followed building norms to make the buildings safe for you and me to live in and feel secure in case the area was hit by a huge tremor?

Going by experience, it impossible to believe that anything would have been done the right way. In fact, the more I look at the video footage shared in the beginning, the more scared I am. If there were a fixed video camera capturing footage of our skyscrapers during a large quake, it would not be an amazing sight, it would be a horror story.

We cannot hide behind the oft repeated explanation that we are a developing nation and that Japan is not the right example to compare ourselves with. If you remember, there was a devastating earthquake a year ago in Chile too. The capital Santiago too was rocked, and according to residents, so strong was the tremor and such was its duration that people had time to run downstairs in the open, but still had to crawl for it was impossible to balance on two feet. Despite this, the loss of lives due to building collapse was minimal. I remember speaking to my friend who is the Indian Ambassador to Chile as to how so few buildings were damaged. He said matter of factly that Chile may be a developing nation and the way people work may not be much different from India, but when it comes to following building norms, they are brutal. There are absolutely no compromises. We need to learn a lot.

And while we are at it, please spare a moment for Indias twenty nuclear facilities as well. Although I am willing to believe that the contractors involved in their construction are not in the same league as those involved with other civilian construction activities, but given that we are masters at cutting corners, it would be great if an earnest assessment of what they are capable of withstanding is done, and immediately. For, if a disaster were to strike there, it would be far more catastrophic than anywhere else in the world.

As the Japanese experience shows, none can take on nature, but with proper planning and perhaps compromising less with norms, we can save a lot more lives.

by Rajesh Kalra

Originally at http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/randomaccess/entry/is-quake-prone-india-prepared-for-japan-like-tremors

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