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What makes Delhi dither in the face of looming disaster

columns Updated: May 18, 2015 11:19 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times
US-based Geo Hazards

A decade and a half ago, US-based Geo Hazards International put Delhi third - after Kathmandu and Istanbul - on the list of the world’s 21 most vulnerable cities. Any disaster here could kill tens of thousands, the 2001 study warned, assessing each of these cities on parameters such as fragility of buildings, fire and landslide potential and the rescue and medical care abilities of local authorities.

This April 25, the premonition came true in Kathmandu when an earthquake of 7.8 magnitude killed at least 8,000 people. On May 12, it struck again, killing 48 more.

Like last month, Delhi felt the tremors the second time too. On a wing and a prayer, we rushed out of buildings to crowded streets. The Metro stopped and the firemen dousing a blaze in Connaught Place briefly halted the operation. But soon the fatalistic city was back to the

Delhi falls in extremely high-risk seismic Zone IV. The Geo Hazards report estimated that at least 38,000 could get killed if Delhi was affected by an earthquake of magnitude 6. That was 2001 when Delhi was a city of 14 million. We have packed in another three million since.

Turkish geophysicist Ahmet Mete Isikara’s observation that “quakes don’t kill people, buildings do” sums up the potential danger Delhi is staring at. Nearly one-third of Delhi residents live in illegal settlements. The rest are not necessarily any safer.

According to an estimate, for every legal construction in Delhi, there are two built illegally. These weak structures are democratically spread across slums, unauthorised colonies, middleclass neighbourhoods and even upscale gated-communities. Last week, municipal agencies told the Delhi high court that only about 20% of the buildings in the city complied with building norms. It has not required quakes for frequently collapsing houses to kill scores in Delhi.

One could argue that keeping tabs on structural safety is difficult in Delhi’s dense living arrangement. The problem is that we are not even trying. The Indian Design Code has detailed specifications for all types of constructions and compliance is a must to get a completion certificate for a building. But the civic agencies have only 75 empanelled engineers to issue such certificates in Delhi. Home owners anyway stopped bothering since 2011 when the government revoked its order which had banned registration of properties without structural safety certificate.

Istanbul, another city placed high on the vulnerability index, has had a trajectory similar to that of Delhi’s. Its large working class found homes in informal buildings called Gecekondu (built overnight). Amnesty laws gave many occupants the right to use of the land. In the 1980s, they were even allowed to go up to four floors. According to the International Federation of Red Cross’ World Disaster Report, at least 70% of Istanbul’s housing stock is either illegal or regularised, while much of it was built without following earth quakeproof building codes.

But since the Izmit temblor of 1999, the Turkish government has made legislative changes regarding building supervision and mandatory earthquake insurance. The Istanbul municipality also started identifying dangerous buildings in Gecekondu for demolition and subsequent reconstruction by the administration. This has triggered fear of large-scale displacement of poor urban dwellers, the report stated.
Delhi has too many illegal buildings to even consider the option of forced eviction and demolition. But instead of trying to make the enforcement mechanism more effective and accountable for the new buildings, our authorities are on a regularisation spree.

In 1960, a 9.5-magnitude earthquake struck Chile, following which the country began enforcing new building laws. Haiti, another earthquake-prone country, did nothing during this period. So, in 2010, when similar earthquakes struck the two countries, only about 0.1% of Chileans affected by the 8.8 magnitude earthquake died. By contrast, 11% of Haitians affected by a 7.0 magnitude got killed. “Haitian buildings appeared to be 100 times as lethal as Chilean buildings. It is a stunning example of value of preparation,” The Vox quoted Brian Tucker, founder of Geo Hazards International, from his 2013 paper in Science.

In the mid-2000, Delhi began retrofitting its five ‘lifeline’ civic buildings to make them quakeproof. The project could never be completed because the engineers at the public works department got busy giving the capital a ‘world-class’ makeover for the Commonwealth Games. Talk about sheen over substance.