Stay out of the zone: It's time India blunts quake impacts

  • Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Aug 22, 2015 01:57 IST

This year is the 690th anniversary of the ascent to the Delhi throne, in 1325, of Muhammad Bin Tughlak, of whom it was said that not a beggar left his gate without food in his belly and not a man suspected of disloyalty, with a head on his shoulders.

Tughlak has become synonymous with a cruel eccentricity. His shifting the empire’s capital from a thriving Delhi to far off Devagiri is seen as a madcap idea. Had he wanted to move only the offices of the state, there may have been nothing much to be said for or against it. But he also compelled the people of Delhi to move, rusted lock, thinned stock and poor barrel. Several perished on their way. All this made him look what he was — capricious and foolish.

But unknown to him, his decision to move the capital had a sound reason. That reason is, unfortunately, not recognised because it belongs to a niche science — seismology. He was moving the capital from a site vulnerable to earthquakes to one that was markedly less so.

Unknown to him, I have said. I could be quite wrong for Tughlak, we are told, had an interest in mathematics, astronomy and the physical sciences. He may well have had a sense of how strong the earth beneath Delhi was for hosting a city, and a capital city at that. He may also have been told by some wizened old bag of memories that temblors had shaken, rattled, and all but felled Delhi, time and time again.

Tughlak’s shift was as short-lived as it was hasty. Power’s architecture crawled surely back to Delhi, there to remain forever, except for when the British Raj was headquartered in Calcutta. But that too was an interlude. Bengal having become politically thermal in the beginning of the 20th century, the Raj too moved the capital back to Delhi, in 1912.

There has to be something about Delhi, a self-perpetuating ‘graveyard of empires’ to be able to remain India’s capital, in the saw-teeth of seismological intelligence.

India has four zones, numbered in an ascending order of risk-criticality, from zone two to five. The highest includes Kutch, the valley of Kashmir and the whole of India’s Northeast. The next highest has the national capital Delhi, at its very heart.

The city sits on three fault lines and is within touching distance of zone five. ‘Minor’ quakes apart, at least five devastating earthquakes measuring more than five on the Richter Scale have hit Delhi, since 1720. That is more than one per century. Richter 5 in 2015 will, unlike Richter 5 in Tughlak’s times, kill and maim millions because millions now live in high-rise buildings that have been built with cement and steel, not wood and mud.

Tughlak was cruel, he was capricious. But he did stumble into a seismically intelligent move.

The makers of the Republic of India’s new Constitution had a grand opportunity, a historic one, to move the capital, to give the new India a new capital that was not on zone four or even zone three. But seismology was the last ‘logy’ on their minds.

The horology of historical clocks “…at the stroke of the midnight hour…” was turning their minds, as was the mythology of power in the shape of the Purana Qila, the Lal Qila and the gleaming new Lutyens’ Qila. Besides, the cosmology of change was opening up a new planetarium of aspirations. A new capital for reasons of a likely earthquake was the last thought to be thought of.

And yet if on a day the constituent assembly was in session, an earthquake at more than Richter 5 had hit Delhi as well it could have, shaking and then disfiguring that lovely building, rocking the Viceregal Lodge and sending Lord Mountbatten dashing out of that great pile with a traumatised Lady Edwina in his arms, the thought of a new capital would not have been all that unimaginable.

Should we wait for an earthquake at Richter Five or more to make Parliament House and Rashtrapati Bhavan realise that our capital is in real seismic danger?

The Republic of South Africa has three headquarters — Pretoria, the capital, where the president and the ministers have their offices and official residences; Cape Town where the South African Parliament is located, and Bloemfontein where its Supreme Court sits. The three-way split of the ‘capital city’ in South Africa gives us a model to look at.

Our Parliament can move to, say, Nagpur (in zone two) and the Supreme Court to, say, Hyderabad or Bengaluru (also in zone two) not only to ‘save’ the good men and women who are at the helm of these august institutions but also those who work for them and those who have to flock to them for redress. A good half of the many organisations, directorates, autonomous commissions and government institutes should relocate to seismologically safer sites.

What is even more important is that the areas at high seismic risk be advised to de-congest and to the extent possible, quake-proof themselves. And it is imperative that the Government of India relocates such nuclear plants as may be situated on zones three, four and five.

There will never be a time when earthquakes will become preventable. But the time has come for us in India to blunt the impact of earthquakes when and where they do occur. If government has a credible zone-by-zone scheme for doing so, it is keeping it as a close secret. Tughlak’s moving of the capital was capricious. Staying put on three live seismic faults is no less so.

And letting our map of four seismic zones moulder on paper is worse. I leave it to the reader to give that non-action any one of the many adjectives we use for Tughlak.

(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is distinguished professor in history and politics, Ashoka University. The views expressed are personal)

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