Earthquakes compound building penalties

As news of the disaster caused by the 7.9-Richter magnitude earthquake hit news channels, my focus shifted back to the vulnerability of our structures. India has been besieged by earthquakes every few years since 1991—before that, the notable one was in 1975. In recent times, the biggest one was the 9.1-magnitude quake near Sumatra islands that caused the tsunami in December 2004. India suffered quakes of 7.6 magnitude in Kashmir in 2005 and Gujarat in 2001. All, inevitably, caused heavy losses of life and investments.

Living on fault zones, we are prone to these hazards and yet don’t seem to have learnt much. Japan withstands earthquakes of 7-plus magnitude in a routine manner with not much suffering caused to its citizens. Countries like Japan, New Zealand and the US have detailed seismic code provisions. India too has a fairly good range of seismic codes covering a variety of structures, ranging from mud or low-strength masonry houses to modern buildings. However, the key to ensuring earthquake safety lies in a robust mechanism that enforces and implements these design code provisions in actual construction of structures.

As urban migration gains momentum, we are likely to add another equivalent of our existing urban population of around 400 million to our cities by 2050. The lives and investment at stake will be even higher—it’s time to stop tolerating abuse of building codes. Last year, the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD), Finance Ministry and PMO approved, through an ordinance, the regularisation of 895 unauthorised colonies of Delhi benefitting 6 million people. The Delhi government had also suggested that regularisation of unauthorised colonies would bring in planned construction under existing building bylaws and other applicable rules that, in turn, would result in more orderly development of these colonies. This is all fine until disaster strikes and then the ‘house of cards’ crumbles. The government should be duty bound to bring the colonies so ‘regularised’ to adherence by ensuring they get retrofitted to a certain standard of construction quality. There is need for a diktat from the MoUD to all state governments that all such regularisations are done only after audit and a certificate of their stability of structure is issued by the municipal corporation concerned. Further, all such regularisations already completed should be subject to a structural audit immediately and then the regularisation should be kept on hold until compliance takes place.