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Delhi needs a plan for the indifference of its people

columns Updated: Nov 18, 2012 23:54 IST
Shivani Singh

Evergreen, a four-storey building in the heart of the city got knocked down on Friday by a temblor that measured 7.8 on the Richter scale. The same day, Delhi found itself in yet another global list of cities most exposed to environmental disasters.

Fortunately, the Evergreen disaster, adroitly managed by a rescue team in just 30 minutes, was a mock drill organised for the audience at the International Trade Fair at Pragati Maidan. The disaster map that features Delhi is, however, very real.

Last week, UK-based risk analysis firm Mapecroft's Global Climate Change Vulnerability Index named Delhi among the 25 cities most vulnerable to calamities and lack of preparedness to deal with grave disasters. Delhi found itself in the high risk category because of poverty, governance issues, population pressures and lack of urban planning.

Earlier, a study by GeoHazards International put Delhi third on the list of the world's 10 most vulnerable cities, after Kathmandu and Istanbul. The study was based on parameters like building frailty, fire and landslide potential, and rescue and medical care abilities of local authorities.

Delhi falls in extremely high-risk seismic Zone IV. Our authorities claim that new residential apartments comply with structural safety norms. It is the old ones that need retrofitting but there is no binding norm. The Central Building Research Institute's survey found that 70% of constructions on the Yamuna floodplain were structurally unsafe. Yet, the government has been mulling over the recommendation for conducting an inspection of all buildings in Delhi.

According to an estimate, for every legal construction in Delhi, there are two built illegally. Most of these are raised on weak foundations in unauthorised colonies and the Walled City where half of Delhi's population lives. It is not unusual to see four to six storey wafer-thin structures come up in less than six weeks. Little wonder that house collapse kills more people than any other disaster in Delhi. Two years ago, a building collapse in east Delhi's Lalita Park killed 70.

Every Delhi building is supposed to get a completion certificate, confirming structural safety, from empanelled engineers. But the civic agencies have only 53 of them and even a small number of home owners who used to approach them do not bother anymore since the government revoked its own order which had banned registration of properties without structural safety certificate or a sanctioned building plan.

The National Disaster Management Act came about in 2005. Delhi soon followed with its own version of it, setting up a disaster management authority, which remained defunct for years facing problems of funds, manpower and office furniture. Recently, it has started conducting large-scale mock drills and training for schools and hospitals. But the response time of agencies involved remains poor. There is little coordination and many simply do not participate. Reviews have revealed that even people were indifferent and most refused to join in.

Community programmes and awareness campaigns are vital parts of disaster mitigation plan of every city. Forget rich nations like Japan, even modest economies such as Armenia and Jamaica have consistent community programmes. In the US, citizens are taught the basic repair techniques in home strengthening workshops and each locality has a list of approved contractors who can be hired to do the job.

We have none of it in Delhi. Few of us have ever been approached by officials from civic agencies or resident welfare associations to pay attention to the structural safety of our house or organise an awareness workshop. When someone took a rare initiative, I know of highly educated and affluent residents who refused to spend Rs. 50,000 per apartment to get their buildings retrofitted.

Such indifference of Delhi residents is matched only by that of our authorities'. The Delhi government and the civic agencies have so far bothered to retrofit only five of the numerous old buildings they own. Now that is not a Bhagidari Delhi can be proud of.