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On uncertain ground

A series of tremors and minor earthquakes over the last few months have gripped the NCR in a sense of foreboding over whether the region is capable of handling what may follow

On uncertain ground
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As people across the nation shudder in the face of an evergrowing tide of contagion, the denizens of the National Capital Region have yet another cause for agitation, adding to an already lengthy list of concerns. A dozen or so low-intensity quakes and tremors hitting NCR have set the region on edge, with many experts warning of the growing possibility of a major earthquake hitting the Capital Region in the near future. As many would be aware, Delhi and the NCR region at large is classified as a seismic zone IV due to the proximity to several fault lines that are present in and around the region, classifying it as a severe zone. Gurgaon, by and large, has been seen as one of the most sensitive areas in NCR with many of the regions active and inactive fault lines either running underneath it or alongside it. Equally or perhaps even more vulnerable are the areas lying around the River Yamuna due to the fact that buildings there are constructed over alluvial soil which is known to amplify the destruction of earthquakes. The scientific community, however, is not united in such gloom and doom scenarios. Many, including BK Bansal, Director of the National Centre for Seismology have pointed to precisely the same fact of Delhi-NCR being an area with significant seismic disturbances and as such, the recent tremors are very much routine and little cause for additional concern. Both viewpoints, however, emphasise that regardless of what may or may not happen, vigilance and preparedness is key.

Standards and guidelines for earthquake-proof construction are maintained by BIS (Bureau of Indian Standards) and NDMA ( National Disaster Management Authority). NDMA Guidelines on the management of earthquakes-2007 states that 95 per cent lives lost in an earthquake are due to the collapse of non-earthquake resistant buildings. As the population in NCR has grown at drastic rates, so has the occurrence of dense blocks of construction to accommodate this population boom. We are all privy to multiple articles and discussion that emphasise on the point that many builders circumvent earthquake resistance requirements by paying the officials to falsely certify them, that people who buy homes don't particularly care to inquire about the earthquake resistance certification and that a lack of a severe earthquake for decades has made those who inhabit Delhi-NCR complacent in the face of very real danger. There are varying estimates over how vulnerable the buildings of NCR truly. One estimate by Abhay Kumar Shrivastava, Head of disaster management at Haryana Institute of Public Administration in 2019 placed at least 60 per cent of highrises in Delhi NCR at the risk of collapse in the event of a major earthquake. Much of this has to do with the age of the buildings, with many being built a decade or more ago when earthquake-resistant building standards were not common. Another factor according to Mr Shrivastava is lack of awareness about such technologies and building standards amongst builders.

Of course, the haste at which building projects are completed in NCR, especially in Gurgoan and Noida points to a much simpler reason of such standards being willfully circumvented to hasten the construction of these highrises. It is worth mentioning that high rises, to varying degrees, are still engineered. There is not much to say about the so-called 'kaccha' houses and non engineered flats that exist all across NCR and are a deadly hazard to those inhabiting them.

Naturally, there have been efforts to remedy the situation. Multiple Supreme Court orders and city-wide drives to modify old buildings to meet a minimum standard of earthquake resistance has been put into effect. But the penetration of such efforts has been ineffectual in comparison to the actual rate at which construction happens. Ultimately, vigilance is a responsibility we all must hold equally and it is our job to understand just how safe our housing is in the face of such disasters and how we may go about remedying any potential shortfalls in safety standards.

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