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Be very scared

Despite being prepared for the catastrophe, the earthquake has set Japan back by years. With India focused entirely on growth, it is unprepared for such a devastation, writes Samar Halarnkar.

columns Updated: Sep 10, 2011 19:37 IST
Samar Halarnkar

Given the apocalyptic meltdown facing the Fukushima nuclear complex in Japan, India is now reviewing safety in its seven nuclear-power plants. That is an obvious step. What isn't quite as obvious is the great silence in India over more mundane issues that could kill millions if left unaddressed.

If there was no at-risk country more prepared for earthquakes than Japan, there is no country more unprepared than India, where the rush to economic growth has washed over irritants like earthquake-resistant building codes and disaster-management. I write this in a high-rise that, like almost every other, may simply collapse when the big one hits India.

The big one is only a matter of time, if you understand all that's on India's great plate, so to say.

The earth's landmasses ride like gigantic rafts on 'plates', or sections of the earth's outermost layer, the crust. These plates frequently slip and slide, causing earthquakes. We don't feel the small ones. The big ones, literally, shake us up.

The Himalayas and north India are on particularly shaky ground. Sometime in the hazy geological past, when Earth had never heard of humans, India broke off from an ancient supercontinent called Gondwana, a name still used for what is now Chhattisgarh. The Indian plate skated north, displaced an ancient sea, travelled more than 2,000 km - the fastest a plate has ever moved - and slammed into the Eurasian plate, creating the Himalayas, where you can still find sea shells.

India still grinds northeast into Asia at roughly 5 cm every year. The last significant - but not geologically devastating - quake in this area was the 2005 temblor in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, which sits directly atop the clashing Indian and Eurasian plates. About 80,000 died.

So, more damaging seismic events are inevitable in a region that has experienced some of the world's most intense earthquakes.

The only serious earthquake that modern India remembers - barely - is the temblor that killed about 20,000 in Gujarat a decade ago. Even the 2004 tsunami, the outcome of the third-most most severe quake ever recorded, has all but faded from public memory. At 9.3, that quake occurred when the Indian plate slid with greater violence than it normally does under the neighbouring Burma plate (atop which are the Andaman and Nicobar islands). It caused a 100-km-long rupture in the crust, thrusting the seafloor upwards and pushing up masses of water, setting off tsunamis that killed 230,000 people in 14 countries.

We are complacent because no Indian city in our living memory has been hit by a major quake, even Delhi, which lies in high-risk seismic zone 4 (Srinagar and Guwahati are in the highest-risk zone 5; Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata lie in zone 3).

Well, our living memory is the geological blink of an eye - it means nothing.

Consider two of the subcontinent's big, forgotten quakes, Bihar and Assam. Though its epicentre was 10 km south of Mount Everest, the Bihar earthquake of 1934 was felt from Mumbai to Lhasa, flattening almost all major buildings in many Bihar districts and damaging many in Calcutta. At 8.4 on the Richter scale, it was pretty severe, killing more than 8,100 (Mahatma Gandhi said it was punishment for the sin of untouchability).

Severity and death tolls depend on depth and intensity. Weaker but shallower quakes - near the surface - can be more damaging than stronger, deeper ones. The strongest Himalayan quake measured with instruments thus far registered 8.7 on the Richter scale in 1950 but killed no more than 1,500 people in Assam and Tibet because it was deep (another reason was the preponderance of traditional, quake-friendly housing of the time).

But the 1950 Assam earthquake, scientists say, has geologically set the stage for a really big one in the Himalayas. Now, 60 years later, the geological eye may be completing its blink. If it does, India should be prepared to not only see its growth set back, perhaps catastrophically, but to experience terrible death and destruction.

Very few buildings in India are built with what is called 'Indian Standard Criteria for Earthquake Resistant Design', first published by the Bureau of Indian Standards in 1962 and periodically revised, the latest revision being in 2005. With no enforcement, India is barely aware these standards exist.

There are exceptions. The Delhi Metro is built to withstand a quake in its risk zone. Many of the houses built in Bhuj after the Gujarat quake of 2001 are now earthquake-resistant. The rare building and high-rise may be designed for quakes.

But the 60% of India vulnerable to quakes is as unprepared as in 1993, when a relatively mild earthquake of magnitude 6.4 in Maharashtra's Latur district killed nearly 10,000 people, in what was considered a non-seismic zone. Most died because shoddily constructed houses collapsed at the first major shake, as they did in Gujarat eight years later.

The government of India today lists 38 cities in moderate to high-risk seismic zones. "Typically, the majority of the constructions in these cities are not earthquake- resistant," notes a 2006 report written by the United Nations for the ministry of home affairs. "Therefore in the event of an earthquake, one of these cities would become a major disaster."

The popular Indian notion about catastrophe is that it happens to someone else. In India that popular notion is not far from official policy.