February 5: The earthquake that struck Gujarat, one of India’s most prosperous states, will go down as among the worst since India gained independence. Both in terms of the numbers of people killed (about 50,000 are feared dead) and the scale of destruction wrought, it has few contemporary parallels.
The images of prosperity in cities such as Ahmedabad have been reduced to the symbols of a wasteland – rubble, dust, twisted steel and wire.
A real tragedy, say many of us, but follow it up with a resigned look and statement about the “fury of natural disasters”. That is where we are wrong. We should actually be talking about the consequences of “man-made disaster” brought upon by greed and avarice.
The facts are straight. So many lives would not have been lost under caved in structures if certain safety codes had been observed during the time of construction.
When the earth shakes in Japan and the US
Take the example of countries like Japan and the San Francisco region in the United States of America, that are notoriously quake-prone.
And yet human and material damages wrought by earthquakes in these countries, are a lot less than what happened in Gujarat, despite the fact that these areas are equally if not more densely populated than the affected cities of Gujarat. Why?
Foundations of buildings in San Francisco have containers of layered steel and rubber situated below them, to act as shock absorbers. And in Japan, scientists have created ‘smart buildings’ equipped with sensors to detect and counter quake tremors. Do you know how these work?
The sensors in the basement pick up the tremors and immediately send the information to a computer. The computer in turn activates a hydraulic power device, which promptly shifts the building’s centre of gravity with the help of a steel weight. When an earthquake occurs, even a powerful one, these safety measures act to prevent the building from being rocked along with the ground.
Had the high-rise apartments in the cities of Gujarat been equipped with similar devices, they wouldn’t have collapsed the way they did. But authorities in India speak about how such precautions are too expensive to suit the Indian budget.
Simple solutions for a tough problem
Well…they are not, if one adopts simple solutions, say professors at the department of earthquake engineering at Roorkee University, Uttar Pradesh. The department has printed a manual that prescribes simple solutions. Strengthen the corners of walls- which bear the brunt of the shock- with a simple steel bar secured to the edges with the help of mortar, it says. Use concrete reinforcement to keep the walls together during an earthquake.
Builders who ‘corrupt’ buildings
The phenomenon of tall buildings in Gujarat falling like ninepins due to the earthquake can be directly related to the faulty construction of the buildings. One curious feature is that while the new, swanky buildings crumbled to the ground, many old buildings and houses remained standing. The latter were constructed in a much better way than the former, say experts.
Not just that. The Archaeological Survey of India, the government organisation in charge of taking care of the nation’s historic monuments, while reviewing the quake-proof properties of Mughal monuments like the Taj Mahal (built by emperor Shah Jahan in the 16th century), say these buildings have solid foundations that can withstand tremors of any intensity.
The sky scrapers wouldn’t have fallen had the government insisted that the builders in charge of constructing the buildings, abide by building laws. Concerned only with making profits, builders regularly flout these laws by disregarding safety measures, mixing inferior materials with the cement used for construction. Moreover, making a building quake-resistant requires spending a little more on construction, which most builders don’t want to be bothered with.
Be prepared or be damned?
The most earthquake-prone regions in India, where earthquakes of magnitude 8 or more on the Richter scale could occur are, the Himalayan belt, the northeast and the Kutch region. Think of the lives that will be saved if the dwelling units and other buildings are built in a quake-resistant way in these regions.
And one of the most sensible ways of building quake-proof structures is to use locally available material and building styles that have evolved through the ages. For instance, the use of bamboo as a construction material in Japan is a brilliant strategy, for it is abundantly available and suited to weather quakes.
Delhi has also been identified as a quake-prone region. And, as builders scramble to reclaim land on the Yamuna river bed to build another “Manhattan” (New York city’s busiest suburb), experts warn that any loading could lead to an earthquake here as Yamuna lies on a faultline.
Finally, say scientists, the Gujarat earthquake claimed so many lives because people were not prepared for it. No warnings were given, despite a leading scientist’s forecast that Gujarat, Konkan, Kerala and the northeast are facing a high-risk period till April.
The writing on the crumbled wall is clear: humans have to keep in mind the fact that the planet they control, has its own rhythms, but the consequences of these rhythms can be difficult to handle if accompanied by unthinking human acts.