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How safe are our buildings?

Why is the government not putting earthquake safety measures in place?

real estate Updated: Feb 01, 2016 12:07 IST
Several buildings collapsed following the 7.3 magnitude earthquake that battered  Nepal’s Capital, Kathmandu, in  May last year.
Several buildings collapsed following the 7.3 magnitude earthquake that battered Nepal’s Capital, Kathmandu, in May last year.(Burhaan Kinu)

Some months ago the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) had announced that there were credible reports of a magnitude 8 or higher earthquake striking India in the near future, causing massive damage to life and property, with casualties estimated at more than eight lakh. Till date, however, no steps have been taken to strengthen buildings, incorporate seismic risk reduction strategies or to educate the public on what needs to be done in case disaster strikes.

The frequency of earthquakes has also increased in the last few months after the massive Nepal quake. India has also had within the last 50 years? six major earthquakes which have resulted in over 23,000 deaths and caused enormous damage to property, assets and infrastructure. India has the second highest population in the world and a correspondingly higher number of buildings. However, not many know that India also has the maximum number of earthquake-unsafe buildings in the world. As everyone knows, earthquakes don’t kill people but falling buildings do and this makes India the most vulnerable place on the planet. The fact that about 60% of India’s land area hosts about 80% of India’s population, has placed a question mark on the capacity of the buildings to resist effects of moderate to severe seismic shaking.

As per government reports and a PIL being discussed in the Delhi High Court, more than 80% of the buildings in the Delhi-NCR region will collapse should a high magnitude earthquake hit north India. The Nepal quake should have set alarm bells ringing as India is already late in making a beginning to achieve seismic resilience, says Sandeep Shah, country head and MD-India, Miyamoto International, earthquake structural engineers.

“The authorities that need to spread public awareness are not doing so. How will people take any earthquake strengthening measures unless they know what kind of a building they are living or working in? Is it likely to collapse in an earthquake? People need to be educated about earthquake-resistant buildings, that there are of four types and each of these types defined in the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) guidelines. All of the buildings in India are being designed only to the lowest seismic category-D, which means that the building will be in a state of disuse and will need to be abandoned after an earthquake. For people desiring higher protection they will need to get their buildings designed as is done in countries like Japan,” he says.

Seismic retrofitting

What kind of action is needed to save lives and property? NDMA has stated that retrofitting is not just an option, but a national urgency. There are valuable experiences of countries like USA, New Zealand, Turkey and Italy, which have undertaken large programmes for seismic retrofitting of buildings.

“One of the administrative issues that requires attention at the highest level of PMO is the need for perfect understanding and co-ordination between the ministry of home affairs, which is responsible for disaster management and the ministry of urban development, which influences the shape of policies and programmes with respect to construction of buildings and development of cities. The ministry of consumer affairs which is responsible for the Bureau of Indian Standards chartered to update the building codes also has to be looped in. The need of the hour may well be to have a joint task force handling the issue,” adds Shah.

Recently, the ministry of urban development has announced that it has given a go ahead to FAR of 400 along the transit routes in Delhi. What this ruling practically implies is that there will be a surge of 40-storey buildings in Delhi just like the many super-talls that are expected to come up in Noida and Gurgaon.

“Today, India is not prepared for high-rise buildings as it does not even have the basic building code for design and construction of high-rise structures,” says a report titled Earthquake Safety - Are We Prepared To Face? by Assocham and Miyamoto this week.

Buildings on stilts

Last year the home ministry through the National Disaster Management Authority came out with a public statement that all buildings on stilts were to be considered as dangerous as these would come crashing down in the event of an earthquake. The ministry of urban development followed this announcement with a policy guideline that stilts were to be made mandatory in Delhi for ensuring parking space. “As a consequence of government policies and announcements, thousands and lakhs of buildings have come up on stilts with the public not realising that these are death traps in the event of an earthquake.”

The Bureau of Indian Standards, which works under the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, released a document last year which said it would be revising the National Building Code and come up with a specialised building code for tall buildings in the year 2015. Till date, the revised National Building Code and the Specialised Building Code, essential for constructing safe buildings with respect to earthquakes, are yet to be released.

The two most important building codes with respect to earthquake safety are IS-1893 and IS-13920, the first was last revised in the year 2002 and the second in 1993. It’s a pity that neither the Nepal earthquake that caused widespread damage nor the warning by NDMA that a magnitude 8 or higher earthquake was due anytime, has made the ministry of consumer affairs release the revised building codes, the report says.

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