The earthquake that shook Nepal and parts of India, China, Pakistan and Bangladesh last week was big, though not the ‘Big One’ that scientists have been fearing would strike the region. Still the earthquake of 7.9 magnitude was one of the most powerful ones to hit the region in the past 80 years. At the time of going to press, the death toll was more than 2,400. The tremor almost flattened Kathmandu and wiped out entire villages in adjoining areas. Even though Nepal has one of the world’s “best people and initiatives for community-based seismic risk reduction and earthquake education”, experts say that conflicts, poor governance and poverty have “created and perpetuated the vulnerability which has been devastatingly exposed during the shaking”. In India, more than 60 people have been killed.
The Centre was swift in responding to the crisis in Nepal. It has already sent four military planes carrying 300 rescue workers, five sniffer dogs and 50 tonnes of relief material and a mobile hospital. While this move is commendable — though much more must be done in the coming days — authorities must treat the earthquake as wake-up call for Indian cities, especially the ones that lie on fault lines. At least 38 Indian cities are located in “high-risk seismic zones” and nearly 60% of the sub-continental landmass is vulnerable to earthquakes. Experts say that about half of the Capital city would have been flattened had the epicentre of the earthquake been in or near to Delhi. The devastation in Delhi would be higher not only on account of high seismicity but also because of unplanned growth that compromises on structural safety standards as prescribed in Indian Standard Criteria for Earthquake Resistant Design. Moreover, India does not have a regulatory framework to ensure compliance of the building norms. Even people don’t know how to respond when an earthquake hits. Last week when the earthquake jolted Delhi and the NCR region, people rushed out of their multi- storied buildings but stood near them. Safety manuals say that the greatest danger exists directly outside buildings, at exits and along exterior walls. Instead of rushing out, the best thing would have been to drop to the ground and take cover under a sturdy piece furniture. Only regular safety drills will ensure compliance when the need arises.
Indian authorities have been too lax for far too long when it comes to unplanned growth and safety issues. The Nepal quake is a good opportunity to change this lackadaisical attitude, implement the building norms and ensure compliance. Because forewarned is forearmed.