A mega earthquake of magnitude 8.5 or more is long overdue in the Himalayan region but India has not learnt from past mistakes and is far from being prepared for such an eventuality with no strategy to minimise loss of life and property, scientists say.
The government must ensure seismic safety, scientists from all over the country who gathered here last week for a global workshop said.
The April 18-20 International Workshop on Climate Change and Extreme Events in Himalayan Region, hosted by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Mandi, was aimed at understanding the effects of climate change, melting of glaciers, increased frequency of extreme events, atmospheric pollution, pollution due to crop residue burning in Himalayan region and applications of remote sensing.
Scientists from various fields of expertise concurred that an earthquake of the magnitude of 8.5 or more is expected to rock the Himalayan region.
One of the many topics discussed at the event was that the Himalayan region was not prepared to reduce loss of lives and properties when the ‘big one’ arrives.
Numerous research groups, including one at IIT Roorkee, are in the process of developing earthquake early warning systems which could give people up to a minute of warning before the quake.
However, such short-term predictions are not best way forward, said Dr Supriyo Mitra from Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Kolkata.
“I would prefer being a society that is prepared,” Mitra told PTI.
Even if seismologists are able to provide an early warning to enable people to safely vacate their buildings before an earthquake, our homes would still be destroyed, turning a whole society into refugees, he said.
“We have the expertise to know what the hazards are. Engineers can work out the vulnerability of the structures and tell you the mechanism by which they can be made resistant,” said Mitra, one of the speakers at the workshop.
Implementing these would reduce the risk to human lives and property in the event of a disaster.
“Science can tell you where an earthquake may strike, and with what magnitude, but ‘when’ is a bad question to ask,” Mitra said.
He added that earthquake predictions shift the onus of responsibility of disaster preparedness completely to scientists.
However, to ensure preparedness, the public needs to be involved in questioning whether their buildings are safe.
Participants at the workshop also raised questions on how socio-economically weaker sections would invest in building earthquake resistant buildings.
Dr Durgesh C Rai from IIT Kanpur said it is the right of every individual to have seismic safety, and the government has to ensure that.
“Seismic safety should not be an optional requirement,” Rai told PTI.
While presenting his research, Rai focused on how publicly-funded government buildings in Himalayan states such as Sikkim and Manipur could not survive even low intensity earthquakes.
According to him, we continue to repeat the same mistakes time and again, and have not learnt any lessons from the failures of the past.
Giving the example of the 1993 earthquake that struck Latur, Maharashtra—killing over 9,000 people—Rai said government agencies and academicians were of the view that buildings which collapsed were non-engineered.
“So the deaths of people were linked to their poverty,” Rai said.
“In 2001, the Bhuj earthquake -- 120 multi-storey buildings collapsed in Ahmedabad—killed over 900. This was engineered construction. The investigations showed that every building code was flouted,” Rai said.
“Earthquakes need not be deadly or destructive if we use the right designs and materials,” he said.
Rai said seismic safety should not be an optional feature that people have to ask for. Rather, all buildings should be built to be earthquake safe by default—much like medical instruments are sterilised before use, irrespective of whether a patient is rich or poor.
He pointed out that many older buildings in the Himalayan arc have survived earthquakes for decades, and these could serve as lessons for our future.
“Loss of life occurs due to building collapse and damage, we need to engineer structures with proper building codes,” said Ramesh P Singh, coordinator of the workshop, and visiting professor at IIT Mandi.