At around 2.40 pm on Monday afternoon, tremors were distinctly felt for over 30-40 seconds, shaking high-rise buildings all across North India. Thousands fled their houses and offices in Delhi and adjoining areas as well as in parts of Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana. There have been no reports of casualties in India, but there was major damage to property in Kashmir. Most multi-storey public and private buildings in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, suffered huge cracks. Dozens of houses and school buildings collapsed in southern and central parts of the Kashmir Valley. Traffic came to an abrupt halt as vehicles started swinging on shaking roads in the valley. A traffic flyover in Srinagar developed cracks. As the tremors began, Delhi Metro immediately halted its services all across the capital and in the neighbouring regions of Gurgaon in Haryana and Noida in Uttar Pradesh. Jaipur Metro too followed suit. Services were resumed only after officials did a quick check for possible damage to infrastructure and rail tracks. These tremors were triggered by an earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale, with its epicenter in the Hindu Kush Mountains in Afghanistan. News has poured in that at least 43 people have reportedly died in Afghanistan and the adjoining nation of Pakistan.
This latest earthquake is predictably bad news for Delhi and other urban cities, as discussed in these columns earlier. For the benefit our readers, we shall reproduce some of the concerns that lie at the heart of this impending natural disaster. The national capital lies on a major fault line. Moreover, memories of the horrific earthquake in Nepal last year still remains fresh in the memory of many Indians, who felt the aftershocks. According to a recent study, at least 38 Indian cities lie in high-risk seismic zones and nearly 60 percent of the sub-continental landmass is vulnerable to earthquakes. Barring rare exceptions, India’s hastily-built cities and public spaces are open and extremely vulnerable to great damage from earthquakes. In terms of per capita casualty risk, most of these cities rank amongst the highest in the world. The capital city of Delhi and the surrounding National Capital Region (NCR) sit snug in a seismically active zone. Delhi’s declining or non-existent construction standards, haphazard urban development and skyrocketing population levels have compounded the situation. If and when an earthquake originates near Delhi, the likely consequences will be devastating. It’s safe to say that a majority of Delhi’s population would be sitting ducks. A statutory mapping has been done of all at-risk cities by different urban bodies belonging to both the central and state governments.
However despite repeated exhortations on the part of seismologists, it has not resulted in any concerted political action on the part of either state or central government. In each of these cities which have been identified as lying in the seismic zone, the structure of the soil varies in different parts of the city. In Delhi, the Trans-Yamuna area has sandy soil that is not safe for high rise constructions. Hence trans-Jamuna remains unsafe as compared to houses built in the Ridge area. Unfortunately, despite having strict building codes in place, these are not being implemented. Houses in Delhi and many other cities are often constructed overnight using three-inch brick walls that will not be able to absorb even a tumble after a shock. The Ministry of Home Affairs, under which National Disaster Management Authority falls, is planning to launch a campaign to create public awareness about the need for quake-resistant buildings. The Supreme Court had also mandated that all five-storey buildings and above housing more than 100 people must have an engraved metal plate to ensure it is earthquake resistant. Experts warn that unless the National Building Code is not strictly implemented, India can go the Nepal way if hit by a major earthquake any time soon. This is a disaster perhaps waiting to happen if action is not taken on time.