Poor building quake risk in India: experts


NEW DELHI, AFP

Millions of people living in hastily constructed buildings in India’s bustling towns and cities are at risk from earthquakes similar to the one which ravaged Gujarat state, experts said Sunday.

“When buildings are collapsing like nine pins, as they did in Gujarat, it obviously shows the construction was not up to the mark,” V. Suresh, chairman of the Housing and Urban Development Corp. (HUDCO), told AFP.

“This kind of disaster can happen again,” warned Suresh, whose private agency has helped to rehabilitate victims of past quakes.

Thousands of homes and buildings collapsed in Gujarat when the prosperous western state was rocked by a quake measuring 7.9 degrees on the Richter scale Friday. The quake killed an estimated 15,000 people and left tens of thousands homeless.

Suresh and other experts said quakes posed a serious threat in India because shoddy construction was often used to accommodate a burgeoning population which topped one billion last year.

He said builders paid little heed to safety standards and there was a growing trend to build high-rises which are most susceptible to quakes.

“What is shocking is that modern high-rise buildings are being constructed without the most basic steps for making them safe from earthquakes,” he said.

When a big temblor hits, the vibrations in a building increase in proportion to the height.

Experts said this puts a tremendous sheering force on the lower floors of a building, resulting in cracks which could trigger the kind of collapses seen in Gujarat’s towns and cities.

Not only is the proportion of cement to brick inadequate, but buildings are also often not reinforced with steel bars and girders.

“Even in the Indian capital Delhi, builders frequently flout the safety standards,” said Prashant Patara, an architect who works for Development Alternatives. “In smaller towns and cities, anything goes.

“I would say that nearly 95 percent of the buildings in small towns and cities are constructed in this (unsafe) manner.”

Villagers in India’s rural areas are less prone to suffer heavy casualties in quakes because of the heavy use of natural materials such as mud, straw and wood.

Experts said that although the risk was lower, rural dwellings could also pose a danger since stone, wood and mud were sometimes put together “in an informal manner” which could lead to roofs and walls caving in.

HUDCO’s Suresh pointed out that when an earthquake struck Maharashtra state’s Latur region in 1993, up to 10,000 people living in the largely rural area perished.

“What has to be done is that a lot of guidance must be given to people in rural areas on making safe constructions,” he said. “For the urban areas, the government must enforce strict laws on building.”

Experts called for the start of a campaign to ensure that existing buildings were strengthened to prevent disasters such as that which struck Gujarat. They also pointed out that the country lacks a comprehensive building code.

More than 50 percent of India falls in areas considered quake-prone.

Gujarat lies in a the most sensitive seismic zone and experts said there had been warning signals of an imminent disaster in the form of minor tremors.