Nepal earthquake: Is India prepared?

When life meets death in the horoscope of time, the “god willing” school of philosophy emerges quickly. In the first heart-stopping minutes that followed the 7.9-magnitude earthquake that ripped through Nepal on April 25, several believers threw up their hands-both in honour and in despair-in front of the Himalayan republic’s reigning deity, Lord Pashupatinath. But slowly, as the snow settles back on the Khumbu Icefall and the Indian tectonic plate resumes its ancient rhythm of subducting beneath the overriding Eurasian plate and the climbing death toll gives way to deep grief as well as deep anger, the old questions begin to loom large: how did we get here? And why weren’t we ready for this?


Some say it will take decades to rebuild Nepal, especially because the amount of aid needed to do so is larger than the GDP of that country. Others, notably the non-profit organisation Geo Hazards International whose mission is to reduce earthquake risk in developing countries, points out that “a person living in Kathmandu is nine times more likely to be killed than a person living in Islamabad and about 60 times more likely than a person living in Tokyo,” because of the rampant and indiscriminate construction taking place in Nepal since the last major earthquake struck the India-Nepal border in 1934. As for the “What if” question that rises, unbidden, to the throat of every Indian glued to the dance of death and destruction that plays non-stop on the TV near you, seismologists shudder as they grope for an answer.

“I cannot imagine the catastrophe if an earthquake of magnitude 6 hits Delhi,” says Harsh K. Gupta, president of the International Union of Geodesy & Geophysics, pointing out that the Indian capital is located in Zone 4 (the country is divided into five seismic zones). He adds, “The vast slums and unauthorised colonies, especially around the soft Yamuna floodplain, in which lakhs of people live, will be flattened like a house of cards. The Qutab Minar can probably survive an earthquake of the magnitude of 7.0, but beyond that I don’t think so.”

Vineet Gahalaut, seismologist at the Hyderabad-based National Geophysical Research Institute, emits a strangled laugh. “Have you seen the balconies in the houses in Old Delhi that almost touch each other as housewives exchange kitchen recipes? If a Nepal-type earthquake hits Delhi, the streets are so narrow, you won’t even be able to do search and rescue,” he says. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA)-set up by a government fiat in the wake of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake and the tsunami of 2004-conducted three mega drills in north India and the North-east from 2012-2014 in an effort to develop a contemporary intensity map as well as inform and educate people about the ravages of earthquakes.

Hypothetically simulating, in Chandigarh on February 13, 2013-in the middle of the night when most people are asleep-the 8.0 magnitude of the 1905 Kangra earthquake in which 20,000 people are believed to have been killed, across Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Chandigarh, the NDMA found that 1 million people would have died at present. The scenario-building exercise was repeated in 2014 across all eight states of the North-east, this time simulating the 1897 Assam earthquake of 8.7 magnitude in which around 1,500 people were killed. The NDMA found that if the earthquake had struck at night in 2014, at least 800,000 people would have died.

NDMA member Lt-Gen N.C. Marwah says the three mega drills (the first took place in Delhi in 2012, see box) created a great sense of awareness among the population, but admits that the national disaster management plan is still awaiting approval from the Prime Minister’s Office. Asked about the vulnerability assessments of Delhi, or other towns falling in the highest-risk zones 4 and 5, Marwah says the NDMA doesn’t have the authority to carry out any of these studies, as it is the states that must implement them. “We can only issue guidelines on how to make India disaster-resilient, and yes, the NDMA is a toothless tiger”, he adds.

Rohit Jigyasu, head of the risk preparedness committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, believes the NDMA guidelines need to be simpler and allow greater use of indigenous technology and construction techniques, for instance in Kashmir, where buildings are commonly constructed from wood.

“The NDMA has no guidelines for cultural heritage. For example, there are absolutely no risk management plans for Qutab Minar, which will unlikely survive a Nepal-magnitude quake,” Jigyasu says. “In fact, NDMA and cultural organisations such as the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) have no contact at all. In case of a disaster, who does the ASI call?”

The NDMA passes the buck to the state governments, but no state has a comprehensive disaster management plan, says Ravi Sinha of IIT-Bombay, who helped write a risk report for Mumbai. The National Institute of Disaster Management restricts itself to policy planning and general awareness-type exercises, while the India Meteorological Division’s micro-zoning of Delhi and the Ministry of Earth Sciences’ (MoES) ongoing micro-zoning exercises of 30 cities is limited to topographical surveys. The incredible truth is that not one of these agencies has any information about the state of preparedness in any part of the country, both rural and urban.

And so it took a passionate professor from the department of earthquake engineering at IIT-Roorkee to blow the lid off the bureaucratic stranglehold at the MoES, which in September 2014 stopped funding a 10-year-long IIT project gathering data on structural responses to earthquakes from 293 strong ground motion instruments placed at key positions along the Himalayas.

Exactly a month before the Nepal quake, on March 26, Ashok Kumar of IIT-Roorkee wrote to MoES,complaining that the ministry had unilaterally shut down the sensor project because it wanted to give it to the ministry-controlled National Centre for Seismology.

Thakur added, presciently, “Our country will cut a very sorry face if a big earthquake event occurs, as in the present stage of instrumentation we may not get any strong motion record.”

So as scientists all over the country logged in after the quake to look at data, they found there was none. IIT-Roorkee had been told to shut down its project but the new ministry-controlled seismology centre had not taken over yet.

Defending his ministry’s decision, MoES Secretary Shailesh Naik told India Today that the IIT project had gone on for 10 years and it was high time it was integrated into a permanent network.  Naik said. “I am not a lawyer that I should check whether integration was done before or after.” Naik said he was sure that at least “one or two” stations would have still recorded the Nepal earthquake “as their battery life is one year.” He has now ordered a team to be sent to all stations to find out. In any case, he added, data from all 64 seismometers in the Himalayas (there are 82 all over the country) had already been released.

Meanwhile in Shimla, where bureaucratic apathy has combined with political greed to destroy a city once known as the Queen of the hills, a 2013 disaster management plan reveals that 98 per cent of the city will either collapse or suffer substantial damage if an earthquake of 7.5 magnitude occurs. According to NDMA consultant B.K. Khanna, at least 25 per cent of Shimla’s population of more than 8 lakh will be killed.

The National Building Code is a very good one and is constantly being revised,” says architect-planner AGK Menon, “but it is not mandatory. The truth is that 90 per cent of buildings in any city are built without permission.”

Experts rue the fact that India is totally unprepared. “We are building more high-rises on steep inclines even in the Himalayas,” says M.L. Sharma, HoD, Earthquake Engineering, IIT-Roorkee. Seismologist Gahalaut says, “Indians believe that earthquakes happen to other people.”

Certainly, the lack of resources accounts for a large part of India’s lack of preparedness. California’s advanced ShakeAlert system gave survivors a grace period of 5-10 seconds when the 2014 Napa Valley earthquake struck. Japan’s early warning systems (see box) meant that the P-waves from the 9 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Sendai in 2011 gave Japan Railways about 12-22 seconds allowing the bullet trains, the Shinkansen, to grind to a halt. About 800 seismometers are operated by the Japan Meteorological Agency, while 3,600 seismic intensity meters are operated by local governments. All this information is fed into the Earthquake Phenomena Observation System in Tokyo and Osaka in real-time and disseminated. In contrast, India has placed 72 GPS instruments and 64 seismometers in the Himalayan belt.

Menon, who was involved in the redevelopment of Anjar town, flattened by the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, says, “In an effort to streamline the old town and broaden its streets, several people had been given land on the outskirts. But when I returned a few years later, I found that most people had left their new patches of land to return ‘home’.”
The most earthquake-prone city in India is Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram which falls in Zone 5, with Sikkim’s Gangtok a close second. A GeoHazards study notes how Aizawl clings to the hillside, some of its houses 10 storeys high. “If an earthquake comes to Aizawl,” says GeoHazards’ South Asia representative Hari Kumar, “just the landslides will bury thousands.”

The story of apathy compounded by bureaucratic indifference and political passivity is chillingly common across the national landscape. An engineer with the Delhi Development Authority recounted how, in 2005, the state government undertook a pilot project of retrofitting five key buildings in collaboration with the American donor agency USAID to make them earthquake-proof. These included the Delhi Secretariat in which the CM’s office is located, the police headquarters, the GTB hospital and Ludlow Castle school.

Some admirable work was performed-the school received a seismic belt, while the Delhi Secretariat received a full dose of seismic planning. Around 2007, after a few engineers had even been to the US for training, the work abruptly stopped. Turned out the 2010 Commonwealth Games were finally awarded to Delhi, and work had to be completed on a war footing. Delhi went to sleep until the Nepal earthquake, when Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced the city needed to get its act together.

And so the wheel of life continues to turn, god willing, even as the Indian tectonic plate in the Himalayas underthrusts beneath its Eurasian counterpart, each day confirming that the arrival of the Next Big One is a day closer. But if the rising death toll from the Nepal quake has one lesson for India it is that the country must finally shed its indifference that often passes off as fatalism and relearn the value of every life. Otherwise, there could be a far stiffer price to pay for that cynical shoulder shrug.


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