Environment & Biodiversity

Policy: Preparing India for Earthquakes

The devastation caused by earthquakes in Turkey should be cause for concern in India. Tremors have been felt in Himalayan states over the last three weeks. Furthermore, geologists have predicted a massive earthquake in the Himalayan state. In this regard, the Delhi High Court directed the state government to submit a status report and action plan on the structural safety of Delhi’s buildings. Nearly 58% of Indian landmass is vulnerable to earthquakes, and the court’s concerns require a policy response rather than a legal one.

What causes earthquakes?

  • The Earth’s crust and upper mantle, according to plate tectonics theory, are made up of large rigid plates that can move relative to one another.
  • Earthquakes can occur when faults near plate boundaries slip.
  • The focus or hypocentre is the location within the Earth where the earthquake rupture begins.
  • The epicentre is the point directly above it on the Earth’s surface.

What is missing from India’s earthquake preparedness policy?

Current policy is primarily concerned with structural details:

  • Following the National Building Codes, this includes specifying the dimensions of structural members such as columns, beams, and so on, as well as the details of the reinforcements that connect these elements together.

While scientifically sound, this perspective on earthquake preparedness is limited:

  • It disregards buildings built before such codes were published in 1962. Such structures are prevalent in our cities.
  • It assumes infallibility in the enforcement processes, relying solely on penalties and illegalities.
  • It treats earthquakes as if they are a problem of individual buildings, as if they exist and behave in isolation from their urban context.

What needs to be done?

  • Policy for earthquake preparedness at the building and city scales: Earthquake preparedness must therefore act at both the building and city scales. Furthermore, we must consider it in terms of policy rather than just legal enforcement.
  • Need for Comprehensive Policy: At the level of building details, we need to develop a system for retrofitting existing structures and more efficiently enforcing seismic codes. While there has been political discussion and piecemeal retrofitting efforts, we still lack a comprehensive policy.

A policy should include two measures

Building Retrofitting to Seismic Codes:

  • To develop a system of tax-based or development rights-based incentives for building retrofitting to seismic codes.
  • A system of incentives of this type will enable the growth of an industry centred on retrofitting, resulting in a body of well-trained professionals and competent organisations.

Improving Seismic Code Enforcement:

  • By ensuring better seismic code enforcement through a similar model. The National Retrofitting Programme, which was launched in 2014, was a step in this direction.
  • The Reserve Bank of India directed banks to deny loans for any building activity that did not meet earthquake-resistant design standards under the programme.

Criteria for generating earthquake vulnerability maps at the municipal level

  • The proportion of vulnerable structures in the area; the accessibility of evacuation routes and distances from the nearest open ground;
  • The urban fabric’s density;
  • The location of the nearest relief services, as well as the speed with which these services can reach affected areas.
  • Flood zone mapping, for example, is a successful example of such an exercise in terms of timely evacuation and efficient implementation.

@the end

Governments and policymakers should know better than to act piecemeal. Programs such as the ongoing Urban 20 meetings provide an excellent platform for international knowledge exchange on earthquake preparedness. The Delhi High Court’s orders should serve as a reminder to include an earthquake preparedness policy in urban renewal programmes like the Smart Cities Mission. A policy on earthquake preparedness must be visionary, radical, and transformative.

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