Tremors turn spotlight on Delhi’s earthquake prep

Published on Nov 14, 2022 02:40 AM IST

Despite repeated interventions of the Delhi high court, the urban local bodies have been slow in ensuring compliance with structural safety audits and retrofitting of risky buildings

Geographically, Delhi falls under the ambit of seismic zone-4 which can expect the second highest level of earthquakes. (REUTERS)
Geographically, Delhi falls under the ambit of seismic zone-4 which can expect the second highest level of earthquakes. (REUTERS)

As residents across Delhi-NCR were shaken early morning on Wednesday with tremors from a 6.6 magnitude earthquake in western Nepal, the shock waves also brought the spotlight back on the lack of earthquake preparedness in terms of meeting building safety norms.

Geographically, Delhi falls under the ambit of seismic zone-4 which can expect the second highest level of earthquakes but despite repeated interventions of the Delhi high court, the urban local bodies have been slow in ensuring compliance with structural safety audits and retrofitting of risky buildings.

In June 2020, the three erstwhile municipal corporations had fixed a 6-month deadline for obtaining a structural safety certificate for high-risk buildings and older structures which came up before the seismic provisions were incorporated in the building by-laws of Delhi but almost 2.5 years later the municipal corporation has received structural audit compliance from only 758 buildings. An MCD compliance report also adds that demolition action was taken in 53 cases while retrofitting is in progress in 16 cases.

According to a public notice of June 18 this year, the local bodies issued a mandate for a safety audit of all institutional buildings having a large number of occupants like educational institutes, assembly buildings, hospitals, malls, cinema halls and hospitals. The mandate also covered all private and government buildings with a height of over 15 metres. The notice said that an audit would be mandatory for all “buildings without sanctioned building plans” irrespective of their date of construction.

“For the buildings which have a sanctioned building plan, a cut-off date of 20 March 2001 was fixed with a structural safety audit being mandated for older buildings,” a corporation official explained.

Delhi is estimated to have 3.2 million buildings, with a majority of those having been developed without following any building regulations. The Tejendra Khanna Committee set up in 2006 to look into various aspects of unauthorised construction and misuse of premises in the city had found that 70-80% structures had violated building norms.

Almost two years after the deadline expired, the latest action taken report by the MCD says that the corporation has so far identified around 4,655 buildings, of which notices were issued to 4,463. Even within the small number of buildings that were identified by the erstwhile MCDs, only 16.2% filed structural audits.

Arpit Bhargava, who was a petitioner in the case, says the civic bodies have not been able to cover even 10% of the high-risk buildings.

“Not even 1/10th of the buildings that were issued notices by the MCD have carried out structural safety audits or retrofitting. In April 2019, an action plan was submitted to the high court assuring that all at-risk buildings will be covered in the next two years while the medium- and low-risk buildings were to be covered in the subsequent three years. Being in seismic zone-4, people of Delhi continue to be at risk. A major earthquake can flatten a portion of Delhi,” he said.

Kalachand Sain, director of Wadia Institute, said large parts of the Himalayan region, including northern India, fall in seismic zones 4 and 5, leaving them not only vulnerable to high-intensity earthquakes, but also highlighting the need for better preparation.

“Such a strong intensity earthquake can easily impact an area of 200 to 300 kilometres around it and so it is important to prepare well in advance. The closer the epicentre is to an area like Delhi-NCR, the greater will be the impact and so it is important to ensure old buildings are retrofitted and the new buildings coming up are built keeping in mind the ability to withstand such high-intensity earthquakes,” he said.

The zonal distribution of the high-risk buildings identified by the MCD shows that the highest, 1,296 buildings, were earmarked in Rohini followed by 574 in the west zone, 495 in the central zone, 450 in the south zone, 446 in Shahdara South and 391 in the City Sadar Paharganj zone. The highest number of demolitions have been undertaken in the City Sadar Paharganj zone where 38 buildings were taken down, followed by the west and Rohini zone where six and five such structures, respectively, were taken down by the corporation and the owners.

A senior MCD official involved with this court-mandated drive said the scale of illegal construction that has been undertaken without following the unified building by-laws is so large that it poses practical problems in ensuring compliance.

“In many cases we have issued notices but people do not respond. If we take harsh action like cutting power/water supply, it leads to a public outcry. The scale of the issue is very large and the problem is particularly stark in the case of the walled city and unauthorised colonies. A practical approach could be to cover large assembly buildings, government offices, high-rise units and old structures under the retrofitting drive,” he said. Another MCD official said the dangerous structures’ survey is carried out by the building department before the onset of the monsoon every year but that exercise has limitations as it simply relies on a visual survey of the area.

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