Metro Matters: Unsafe cannot be the new normal for Delhi buildings | columns | Hindustan Times
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Metro Matters: Unsafe cannot be the new normal for Delhi buildings

Every third resident in Delhi lives in a poorly provisioned home in an illegal settlement. Even the so-called ‘legal’ houses were not necessarily built legally. Very few, it seems, care that the national capital falls in extremely high-risk seismic Zone IV.

columns Updated: Oct 09, 2017 15:41 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times
Delhi news,Metro Matters,Shivani Singh
Delhi’s biggest worry is its unauthorised colonies where it is not unusual for four to six-storey structures to come up in a matter of weeks.(Sanjeev Verma / HT FILE)

On September 19, an earthquake in Mexico killed at least 230 people and injured thousands. Shaken to their foundation by a magnitude-7.1 quake, several buildings gave in. But many stood firm.

What saved those buildings, and their inhabitants, while others turned into mass burial grounds, was another earthquake that hit Mexico 32 years ago. In 1985, a temblor of magnitude-8.1 brought down entire city blocks and the death toll estimates ranged from 6,500 to 20,000.

The less extensive damage this time “owes much to stricter building codes introduced in the decades since”, observed the Economist. Many new towers, some 50-storey high, “swayed” but did not “buckle” and the damage was largely confined to the pre-1985 buildings.

Following the 1985 earthquake, the Mexican government issued tough regulations to help make new buildings quake-proof. These include using a stronger mix of cement for the foundations, and making stronger walls and column, Time magazine reported last month.

Of course, some builders bypassed the system and built weak structures that could not hold. But experts agreed that the damage could have been phenomenal if it were not for the post-1985 building codes even if the enforcement was somewhat patchy.

Delhi, on the other hand, has not had any high-intensity earthquakes to shake us out of complacency. Very few, it seems, care that the national capital falls in extremely high-risk seismic Zone IV.

In 2001, the US-based GeoHazards International put Delhi third — after Kathmandu and Istanbul — on the list of the world’s 21 most vulnerable cities, assessing each of them on parameters such as the fragility of buildings, fire and landslide potential, and the rescue and medical care abilities of local authorities.

If an earthquake of magnitude-6.0 hit Delhi, the report warned, at least 38,000 people would get killed.

Since 2001, the premonition came true for Kathmandu where an earthquake of magnitude-7.8 killed at least 8,000 people in 2015. Early this year, scientists warned Istanbul of ominous tectonic activities. Mexico City that was hit by a temblor last month was eighth on the GeoHazards vulnerability index.

Sitting on a time-bomb, Delhi has worked up a perfect recipe for a disaster. Every third resident here lives in a poorly provisioned home in an illegal settlement. But even so-called ‘legal’ houses were not necessarily built legally.

Last week, proposing partial amnesty to illegal constructions that came up until a year ago, the North Delhi Municipal Corporation admitted that 90% of properties in its jurisdiction have undergone some sort of unauthorised construction.

Unfortunately, instead of trying to strengthen the enforcement mechanism, the civic agency wants to regularise construction violations. All it will take is a certificate from a civil engineer vouching for the structural safety of the main structure. But who will inspect a system that allowed such illegalities in the first place?

Delhi’s biggest worry, however, is its unauthorised colonies where it is not unusual for four to six-storey structures to come up in a matter of weeks. To increase the carpet area, these buildings prefer thin walls and do away with load-bearing beams and pillars. Existing outside the city’s civic map, such buildings stay under the administrative radar until they start tilting or actually collapse.

The populist sop of regularising these neighbourhoods has been limited to providing basic civic facilities and property rights. But structural safety, the biggest concern, is not even on the political agenda. Delhi anyway has too many illegal buildings to even consider the option of forced eviction or mass demolition.

But nothing stops the enforcement mechanism from ensuring that new constructions follow the safety rules. As an official told me, with government agencies taking ownership of their vacant plots and private landowners preferring legitimate projects under land-pooling, transit-oriented and low-density residential development, there is anyway little land available for the illegal market.

With the scope shrinking, there should be fewer illegal under-construction buildings to inspect and no excuse other than callousness for not enforcing compliance. In a city where house collapses kill more people than any other disaster in normal times, imagine what is in store when the earth trembles.

shivani.singh@hindustantimes.com