India’s quake detectors in a coma for 8 months due to bureaucratic bottleneck

  • Zia Haq, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Apr 30, 2015 00:54 IST

If an earthquake were to hit India right now, let alone early warnings, scientists may even struggle to evaluate its scale and characteristics and also predict aftershocks.

The country’s network of “ground-motion” detectors, the backbone of quake monitoring, has not been working for nearly eight months now due to a bureaucratic bottleneck, putting millions of lives at risk.

As the Nepal quake rippled across most of India, top geologists logged in to a designated website for data to analyse the event. When they failed to find any data on the 7.9-magintude quake that set off in Lamjung, Nepal, they found that strong-motion detectors were lying idle.

Ground or strong-motion detectors -- also called accelerographs -- are critical as they serve as the basis for India’s earthquake early-warning system.

In absence of vital information, scientists would find it difficult to evaluate a quake properly. “You could say earthquake sciences begin with them,” one expert told HT, requesting anonymity because he receives state funding for his research.

India’s network of 300 strong-motion sensors, installed at critical points across 14 states, cover high-risk seismic zones V and IV as well as some heavily populated cities in zone III. These include Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Sikkim, West Bengal, Meghalaya, Assam and Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

These imported devices, which measure movement generated during a quake and also help identify areas that could be vulnerable, cost Rs 10 crore to install and about Rs 1 crore a year to maintain.

“Ground-motion data is also vital to determine quake characteristics at different places and designing over-ground structures, such as buildings. For instance, during a quake, Kanpur will shake differently from Delhi,” said Dr CP Rajendran, a seismologist with the Bangalore-based Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research.

The network is now idling, following a decision to shift its command centre from the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee to the newly set up National Centre for Seismology, which isn’t fully functional yet.

The government moved the project out of IIT-R after it decided to carve out a separate seismological organisation from the India meteorological department. Funding was cut off in September 2014, without an alternative arrangement in place.

The decision was natural because after successful trials, these instruments had to be moved to be permanently maintained, a senior government official said.

“After successful experiments, these instruments have to be permanently made operational. Data is still available. If at all, this is a temporary gap,” Shailesh Naik, the earth sciences secretary, told HT.

On the ground, the changeover hasn’t been smooth. “These accelerographs have to be always on a ready-to-record mode. They have to be inspected frequently. That is not happening because we have no funds. The government hasn’t event taken custody of its keys from us,” Prof Ashok Kumar, who oversaw the project at IIT-R, said.

Networks of accelerographs are operative in several quake-prone regions of the world, offering continuous direct recording linked to computers and the internet.

Some of the problems in India represent classic red-tape. The IMD isn’t happy, a source said, to see a critical wing -- seismology -– being taken away. All this has meant a rough transition, resulting in stalling of a critical quake monitoring system.

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