NEW DELHI: Delhi is located in seismic zone 4, making it highly vulnerable to earthquakes. However, the city is not remotely prepared to deal with them.
"People have a short memory of disaster if they were not involved in it directly. There have been schemes to retrofit existing buildings to be able to withstand an earthquake but no action has been taken," said professor Mahesh Tandon, president of Indian Association of Structural Engineers.
Delhi's focus, he pointed out, has so far been on aesthetics, not on structural safety. "The previous governments were just not serious about it. We are worried about how buildings look but not how safe they are. A structural engineer is responsible for that, not the architect. Delhi's revised building bylaws are to be notified shortly but these have been made by architects, not structural engineers."
The city attempted retrofitting old buildings some years ago but the 2010 Commonwealth Games saw officials and resources diverted to more pressing work. A 2008 paper—'Building capacity in Delhi, India to reduce earthquake risk from existing buildings' by J E Rodgers, L T Tobin and H Kumar—said Delhi Disaster Management Authority, GeoHazards International, USAID and other partners were trying to build the capacity of PWD to assess and retrofit important buildings.
The buildings selected as part of this project were Delhi Secretariat, Delhi Police Headquarters, Ludlow Castle School, a ward block and associated structures at Guru Tegh Bahadur Hospital and several buildings at the divisional commissioner's office complex at 5, Sham Nath Marg. Government sources said work was never completed.
According to the paper, "The soft, deep alluvial sediments on the east side of the Yamuna are expected to amplify the seismic waves from a Himalayan earthquake and cause damage in east Delhi. Delhi has many highly vulnerable buildings constructed of either inadequately reinforced concrete or unreinforced brick masonry. Many of the buildings in the congested neighborhoods of Old Delhi and east Delhi are highly vulnerable, multistory brick buildings with irregular configurations. It will not take a large earthquake to damage these buildings. In addition, many buildings were built illegally, with no quality control."
The Supreme Court had recently ordered all buildings that are occupied by 100 people or more should have a plaque to say what type of quake category it is. But these plaques are nowhere to be seen.
"Lifeline buildings like hospitals should be in a position to be occupied right after an earthquake which means no damage to them. The other category of buildings like offices which may sustain light damage but do not collapse. There are buildings that are neither engineered nor adequately designed for an earthquake. Then there are those which are engineered but not adequately designed for earthquakes. In Delhi, 80% of buildings fall in either of these two categories," said Tandon.
Sources say buildings in Japan, which witnesses numerous quakes each year, are much more resilient. "This is because strict construction codes are followed there. There are BIS codes for designing and retrofitting but neither is followed. In Delhi all flyovers and now the new hospitals are being made quake-resistant but there is no quality control for private buildings, even those which claim to be quake-resistant," said a PWD official.