Published in: 
Saturday, January 3, 2004

A city has been turned into rubble and thousands perished in the recent earthquake in Iran. The image of a mother crying on seeing her dead children in the rubble will be forever etched in my mind. We cannot predict the ways of nature.

More than our inability to predict an earthquake, what troubles me most is our inability to avoid unnecessary human suffering. While the Iranian earthquake measured 6.3 on Richter scale, an earthquake of similar intensity, 6.5 on Richter scale, rocked California a few days before the Iranian earthquake and only two people were dead. True, there may have been differences between the two earthquakes. But the minimal loss of life does demonstrate that while we may not be able to stop natural calamities, we can definitely control their consequences through human intervention. Properly designed buildings can survive devastating earthquakes, as has been demonstrated in India and elsewhere, while others fall like ninepins.

While the loss of life due to a natural calamity is more visible and dramatic, the effects on economy and the livelihood of the survivors often does not get registered on our collective consciousness. Once the images of the dead people disappear from the front pages of the newspapers, we tend to forget all about disaster management and disaster mitigation. Remember Latur? The devastating Latur earthquake of September 30, 1993 was located in a region considered to be the least likely Zone I or aseismic zone. We cannot therefore presume that the possibilities of earthquake occurrence in Hyderabad are remote. Moreover, the tremors of Latur earthquake in 1993 were felt here, though in smaller intensity. Hyderabad also experienced the tremors of the 1969 Bhadrachalam earthquake and mild tremors have hit Hyderabad in October 1994, October 1998 and September 2000.

The efforts of the state government at containing the possible consequences of an earthquake have at best been spasmodic. For instance, after Latur earthquake there were many in our state government who talked about the necessity of implementing earthquake resistant techniques in our construction activity. What has been the progress on that front? Not much. I am not a construction expert, but a look at some of the commercial and residential complexes in Hyderabad will convince anyone that they are virtual death traps in case of an earthquake. Let alone earthquake resistant techniques; even some basic municipal bye-laws are being violated. Minimum distances between buildings are not being maintained. This will lead to congestion and compounded damage during an earthquake as has happened in Gujarat. The residential structures in the poorer sections of the city are even more vulnerable. We have to address this appalling situation by various risk reduction strategies.

The foremost step would be ensuring a rating system for our construction companies by an independent and impartial organization. CRISIL has been doing credible work in the financial sector. Similar models can be examined for our construction industry also, which will ensure quality and better safety standards. However, this measure alone is not enough. Hence, we need to train manpower, such as masons, on a large scale with focus on earthquake resistant techniques. We have to educate the public on a host of issues pertaining to natural disasters on a sustained basis and also convince them that violation of byelaws would prove costly.  And all these measures need to be institutionalized. A small committee of experts can consistently monitor the efforts and take timely corrective action. Finally, many dangerous construction practices get legitimized due to corrupt administrative practices. Reducing corruption and facilitating good governance will go a long way in ensuring a safe city.


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