The Indian Earthquake Problem
Sudhir K Jain
After every damaging earthquake in
lot of coverage is given in newspapers and on TV to the issues of
earthquake safety. Different government agencies announce plans towards
this. Many experts are interviewed on TV channels to share their wisdom
on ways to mitigate such disasters. Numerous conferences are held all
over the country. And, the public feels reassured that the problem of
earthquake safety will now be taken care of, until the next such
earthquake when we realize that not much really got done since the last
event. In the backdrop of the tragic Kashmir earthquake, it is time for
a sober introspection of the ‘earthquake problem in India’.
Aftermath of the Gujarat Earthquake in the Bachau Town
1931 earthquake in March, Baluchistan led to the construction of several
earthquake-resistant railway bungalows in Quetta. These were the only
to survive the 1935 earthquake that killed 25,000 persons. Subsequently,
seismic codes were developed and adopted for reconstruction in Quetta by
the army, the railway and the civil authorities. Clearly, it is possible
to construct houses that will not kill people in an earthquake.
the 2001 earthquake, the Indian middle class witnessed for the first
time, multi-storey buildings fall like a pack of cards, and realized
that these housing types are similar to the ones in which they are
living or have plans to retire into. The Central and State governments
announced numerous plans and activities. It was hoped that India would
now have an effective programme for earthquake safety, and that most (if
not all) new constructions would now comply with seismic codes. Have
such hopes been realized?
Discussions with professional colleagues
around the country and the messages posted on the discussion forum of
the Structural Engineers Forum of India (www.sefindia.org)
clearly show that a huge number of unsafe buildings continue to be built
every day in different cities and towns. After the 2001 earthquake, many
municipal authorities have started asking the structural engineer (and
others such as architects and builder) to certify that the building
complies with seismic codes. Unfortunately, such certificates are easy
to procure, sometimes on payment of small money, and need not have any
correlation with how a building is built. Until the municipal
authorities start enforcing measures to ensure that the building indeed
complies with the codes, false certificates will continue to be issued
for a variety of reasons.
country is going through a major development phase wherein
infrastructure is being added at an unprecedented pace. It is a great
opportunity to ensure that all new infrastructures comply with seismic
requirements. Unfortunately, this is not happening. For instance:
school building were constructed across the state of Gujarat during
April 1999 to December 2000 by pre-cast construction technology that was
deficient in seismic aspects. About three-quarters of these schools
either collapsed or were seriously damaged during the 2001 Bhuj
Creek Bridge connecting the North Andaman with the Middle Andaman was
inaugurated in 2002 and did not have seismic features, even though
Andamans are a high seismic zone. The deficiencies were pointed out and
yet no corrective actions could be undertaken, and the bridge went out
of function after the 2004 Sumatra earthquake.
do we see the above state of affairs in a country striving to stand in
the row of developed countries, awaiting a permanent seat in the
Security Council, and known for being the leader in the highly
competitive IT world? In engineering, often it is more important and
sometimes even more challenging to define the problem than the solution
itself. Quite often, our national or professional pride comes in the way
of stating the problems as they are, leading to a loss of opportunity
for finding a solution.
stakeholder tends to think that his role is the most crucial in
addressing an issue. Hence, differences of opinion are expected between
scientists, engineers, administrators, social scientists and NGOs on how
to solve the problem. Someone would say that mass awareness campaigns
are needed to create a demand for safe constructions. Another would say
that more seismic instruments are critical. Many recommend seismic
microzonation before any progress can be made. However, no one will
disagree that the problem will simply go away if somehow all buildings
can withstand the earthquakes. Clearly, unsafe building stock is the
problem and the solution is to (a) ensure that all new constructions are
earthquake-resistant, and (b) all existing structures are made
earthquake-resistant over a period of time through sensible
us assume that the average life of buildings is 50 years and that the
building stock in growing at two percent per annum. If no new unsafe
building is built in future, in 20 years about 60% of buildings will be
earthquake-resistant even without any retrofitting. It is therefore
obvious that our priority should be to develop robust systems for
ensuring safe construction of new buildings. Simultaneously, we need to
develop systems, policies and methodologies for seismic retrofitting of
existing structures to prepare for sensible retrofitting programmes.
Safety in New Constructions
How can one ensure that all the new buildings are safe? Last year, in a
scientific conference abroad, one prominent scientist from Europe
mentioned that the problems of unsafe constructions remain and that in
his opinion, the cities should hire honest engineers and pay them well,
so that they do not indulge in corruption and new buildings are built to
be safe! This is just to illustrate that the sophistication in building
industry is often overlooked by the public, administrators, politicians,
and sometimes even by civil engineers and architects. Human greed and
lack of knowledge are universal and despite these, it is possible to
develop adequate checks and balances.
Important components for ensuring safe constructions are listed below
(not in the order of importance).
Public Awareness: It is easy to implement safety programmes if the
public is well aware of the seismic risks. The 2001 Bhuj and 2005
Kashmir earthquakes have created tremendous awareness. What remains to
be done is to give the public a perspective on the need for changes in
our construction environment.
Framework: After the 2001 earthquake, a many State government and
municipal authorities have made the code compliance mandatory. There is
now a need to develop a clearer understanding on accountability of
architects, structural engineers, contractors, construction engineers,
developers, and municipal authorities towards safety.
Technical Competence: in the last decade,
numerous capacity-building activities have helped improve the knowledge
levels of structural engineers about seismic codes. The National
Programme on Earthquake Engineering Education (www.nicee.org/npeee)
has trained numerous faculty members of engineering and architecture
colleges, and many such colleges now include the subject in their
curricula. However, a lot more remains to be done on this.
Professional Ambience: The professions of architecture, medicine,
accountancy and law are regulated in our country. The respective
councils of these professions ensure (i) competence of those licensed to
practice, and (ii) ethical practices by their members. A system for
regulating the engineering profession is long overdue in India.
has been a considerable decay in the capabilities of artisans and
technicians associated with the building industry in India. A mason
today has far lower competence than one two decades ago. Hence, a
certificate system is needed for the artisans and masons. The state of
Gujarat has moved ahead in this direction.
Another concern is the low morale among some engineering departments in
the state and central governments. In many such departments,
professionals have lost considerable amount of self-esteem and have
become subservient to the bureaucrats in the ministries for even
relatively minor decisions. We cannot expect to receive good services
from a demoralized group of professionals.
Enforcement: It does not cost anything to wear a seat belt in an
automobile. And yet, the police must enforce it before the public learns
to comply. Should we then expect every property developer to voluntarily
incur extra expenditures for code compliance, particularly when he
himself will not stay in the building? Therefore, municipal authorities
must not only collect certificates of compliance of seismic codes, but
also verify such certificates independently by a cursory review of
structural drawings. Since the 2001 earthquake, the author has discussed
with numerous concerned officials on this and found that the municipal
authorities are reluctant to undertake the task of effective
ironic that we require a license to drive a car and we penalize a
licensed driver for unsafe driving, but we refuse to regulate unsafe
constructions! However, the author was pleasantly surprised during a
visit to Kachchh district in 2003, to see that the relatively junior
administrators in the towns of Bhuj, Anjar, Rapar, Gandhidham and
Bhachao had implemented a semi-informal system of review of structural
drawings before issuing building permissions!
Research and Development: Our construction practices differ from those
in the developed countries, and several technical problems require
indigenous research and development. There is a clear need to focus
research on ‘engineering’ of earthquakes as against the focus on
‘science’ of earthquakes that the country has been doing. A national
initiative in research and outreach in ‘engineering’ of earthquakes in
line with the NPEEE, is urgently needed.
we have made some progress in terms of public awareness, legal framework
and capacity building of engineers, we have done pathetically little
towards improving professional ambience in the building industry and
above discussion has focused primarily on urban constructions. What
about the rural and informal constructions that are not regulated by the
municipal authorities? Several approaches are needed in this regard:
need technological solutions wherein the common man can construct an
ordinary earthquake-resistant house with locally available resources.
Examples of traditional constructions having excellent earthquake
resistance include the Assam-type housing in the northeastern states and
Dhajji-Dwari constructions in Kashmir. Research is needed to develop
contemporary versions of these and other types of constructions.
must discourage construction of reinforced concrete frame buildings
without competent engineering supervision. Instead, buildings with
confined masonry or those with reinforced concrete shear walls are more
appropriate when adequate engineering inputs are not available.
practices in the urban areas will improve, so will the same in the rural
sector; the informal sector initates the formal sector.
Retrofitting Existing Constructions
Unfortunately, the sophistication required for undertaking retrofitting
has not been adequately articulated in the country. Either there is a
casual attitude towards it or too much aura associated with
retrofitting. After the 2001 earthquake, several government departments
in Gujrat assigned the design of seismic retrofitting for a large number
of public buildings to some structural engineering firms. Unfortunately,
no effort was made to ensure that the firms are capable of delivering
such services, or that the expectations form them are realistic. It is
becoming clear now that many of those firms had no expertise for such a
task. Some facts about retrofitting need to be recalled:
Retrofitting can be expensive:
The cost of retrofitting may range from 10 to
50% of the cost of a similar new facility.
Retrofitting is a long-haul process: A timetable running into
decades is needed, depending on the inventory of unsafe constructions
and the resources available. As an example, California Department of
Transportation (CALTRANS) took about 35 years to retrofit its bridges at
a cost of about Rs 42,000 crores.
requires considerable expertise and technology for retrofitting:
Considerable technical know how may be needed for retrofitting of
complex structures or when the objective is to achieve better than
life-safety performance. For instance, CALTRANS had to spend about Rs
220 crores per year for research on retrofitting technologies. In India,
we are yet to develop consensus documents on seismic assessment of
existing buildings and the criteria for seismic retrofitting.
Government must undertake retrofitting of important facilities: We
cannot, on one hand insist that every child must go to school and then
have them go to schools located in unsafe buildings. The tragic scenes
from Muzaffarabad, Where, where about 400 children died in collapsed
school buildings, could recur in many cities in India. A serious
retrofitting policy of the public buildings is needed before we expect
private buildings to be retrofitted.
prioritization system is needed: Since not all facilities can be
retrofitted at the same time, to maximize the safety with the amount
spent, we must have a rational prioritization system considering seismic
hazard at the site, vulnerability of the facility, consequences of
brief, a lot of preparation and background work is needed before a
serious effort at retrofitting can be launched.
best approach to earthquake problem is to work on all the fronts
simultaneously: engineering, science and instrumentation, public
awareness, public policy, etc. The author does not underestimate the
contribution science can make to reducing earthquake disasters. However,
it is important to put in perspective that earthquake safety is a rather
challenging engineering problem requiring decades of focused work, and
that in our enthusiasm for science, we cannot afford to trivialize or
ignore this aspect.
Closure to this article is best provided by a quote from the 1939
publication of the Geological survey of India on the 1934 Bihar – Nepal
"Leprosy is not a common disease, but the medical profession has done
its utmost to eradicate it for the sake of humanity. Great earthquakes
are not a daily disease of any of the earth’s crust, but it should be
our duty to do all that we can to reduce its effects. Unless this matter
is looked upon in a broad way, posterity may yet look back upon our
short-sightedness with regret.
the Quetta area, an excellent building code has recently been drawn up,
and reconstruction has been rigidly enforced in terms of that code. Such
enforcement is perhaps, easier in such a military area, but at least
Quetta provides an example of the practicability of a building code and
of its usefulness. It is, perhaps, not too much to hope that the rest of
will some day follow Quetta’s lead."
This quote is as much valid today as it was sixty-five years
Author works with the
Department of Civil Engineering,
Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, Kanpur - 208216, India.
1. Kumar, S. L. , Paper presented at
the Punjab Engineering Congress, 1933.
2. Rai, D. C., Prasad, A. M. and Jain.
S. K., In 2001 Bhuj, India earthquake reconnaissance report(eds Jain, S.
K. et al.), Earthquake Spectra, supplement A to volume 18, Earthquake
Engineering Reaearch Institute, Oakland, CA, July 2002, pp. 265 – 277.
3. Jain, S. K., Murthy, C. V. R., Roy,
D. C., Malik, J., Sheth, A. and Jaiswal, A., Curr. Sci., 2005, 88, 357 –
4. Spence, R., In keeping Schools Safe
in Earthquakes, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development,
Paris, 2004, pp. 217-228.
5. Dunn, J.
A., Mem. Geol.
India, 1939, 73, 161-181.
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