One of the key questions that has come up after the Nepal earthquake is how safe are Indian cities and what needs to be done to ensure that buildings don’t collapse like a pack of cards in the event of a strong earthquake.
Most experts are unanimous in their opinion that not a Indian single city will be able to withstand a major earthquake. Experts have also warned that Delhi and the surrounding region would have been flattened had the epicentre of the quake been in or near the Capital.
While India has a good range of seismic codes covering a variety of structures, the cities still fall in the high-risk category because there is no robust mechanism that implements these codes — the National Building Code 2005, Master Plan of Delhi 2021, Vulnerability Atlas 2006, and building bylaws — in constructions.
An equally grave problem is that India does not yet have a policy on retrofitting old buildings even though a city like Delhi has a high percentage masonry buildings, which could collapse during an earthquake. Retrofitting is not an easy job and is time-consuming and expensive.
For example, Los Angeles took 30 years to retrofit its old buildings. So governments need to prioritise which buildings it needs to retrofit first; usually it is the “life line” buildings like schools, hospitals and key government offices that can become nodal points in times of emergency.
A few years ago, as part of a pilot project in Delhi, the government had selected five key buildings for retrofitting. But that project was abandoned mid-way.
Mumbai has also been considering with the idea of bringing in a policy on retrofitting since the Thane house collapse in 2013, but there has been no movement on that so far.
There is also a dearth of structural engineers who can do this work. While it is the duty of the government to inspect and do the needful, citizens also should not shy away from taking responsibility.
After an earthquake, residents’ welfare associations can call experts to do a quick visual survey of buildings and this can be repeated every six months.
These will not eliminate damage from quakes, but they will certainly minimise them.