India has over 240 million buildings, both residential and commercial, but few are built to be quake resistant, warns a top official of India's apex body for disaster management. And disasters - in case of strong earthquakes - are waiting to happen.
"Estimates suggest that the country has over 240 million buildings but the scary part is that most of them are not quake resistant nor can withstand high intensity tremors," N.V.C. Menon, a senior member of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), told IANS.
A moderate earthquake measuring 4.3 on the Richter scale shook residents of the national capital and surrounding areas out of their beds early Monday. Tremors were also felt in the neighbouring towns of Gurgaon, Ghaziabad, Noida and Faridabad where a building boom has seen high-rises multiply both for offices and residences.
"Nearly 60 percent of India's population is living under constant threats from such disasters waiting to happen. Natural tragedies can't be prevented but we can minimize its consequences. We expect all states agencies to enforce and follow disaster management guidelines notified by the central government," Menon added.
With a burgeoning population and rampant unscientific construction mushrooming all over the country in the shape of multi-storied luxury apartments, huge factory buildings, colossal malls and warehouses, the threat becomes real.
"India is thus at high risk," warned Menon.
"The home ministry had recently directed that all buildings built after May 2007 must be compliant with disaster management norms. State agencies have been assigned to ensure that everyone follows the guidelines and buildings have mandatory clearances," the official added.
According to NDMA officials, Delhi, Jammu and Kashmir, Gujarat, Himachal, and parts of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh come under the high-damage risk seismic zone.
In the capital, three regions face the highest quake risk: the trans-Yamuna area, west Delhi and Chhattarpur area. Four other regions face moderate risk - northwest Delhi, Najafgarh region, the areas near Sanjay Nagar in south Delhi, and a long stretch from Timarpur in the north to Sangam Vihar in the south.
In the past seven years, three killer quakes have claimed at least 25,000 lives in the country.
The 'Mw7.6' Bhuj earthquake, as it is popularly referred to, that rocked Gujarat on Republic Day, 2001, was one of the two most deadly earthquakes to strike India in recorded history. A month after the earthquake, official figures place the death toll at 13,805 and the number of injured at 166,000.
Four years later in October 2005, 1,387 people were officially reported killed in a quake in Kashmir and several districts in the Himalayan almost wiped off the map.
According to well-known city planner Dunu Roy: "The loss of human life is not the only determinant of earthquake risk any more. Severe economic losses leading to the collapse of the local or regional economy after an earthquake may have long-term adverse consequences for the entire country. This effect would be further magnified if an earthquake hits a mega-city, such as Delhi or Mumbai."
"We are not prepared to handle such calamities," he warned.
The NDMA says that India has not learnt its lessons despite devastating earthquakes at regular intervals.
"The level of awareness of earthquake risk prevalent in the country and the systemic strategy to face damaging earthquakes is rather low. The risks can be reduced only if there is better and more widespread understanding of those contributors to the risk, and thus requires concerted efforts by all stakeholders," Menon said.