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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 7, February 11, 2023

Letter to the Readers, Mainstream, Feb 11, 2023

Friday 10 February 2023


Letter to the readers, Mainstream, Feb 11, 2023

6th February 2023 saw a series of high-intensity earthquakes in Southern Turkey and Northern Syria causing enormous devastation and loss of life — already about 23000 dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. A large number of countries have rushed to relief and this is a process that will last long. Observers say the economic costs might be some 10 percent of Turkey’s GDP. Questions are being asked in Turkey over the sheer scale of damage in a region among the most earthquake-prone in the world, that has past with large earthquakes and had revised its building codes to international levels after the major earthquakes of 1999. A large number of the buildings that collapsed had come up after 2000 and some built as recently as 2019, have crumbled to dust, which suggests that building standards were not followed by the construction firms [1]. In one of the affected cities even the local headquarters of Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority has collapsed [2] [3]. Time will tell more about the role of poor quality building practices in the latest earthquake in Turkey. [4] The question of strict enforcement of building norms and urban safety standards is a very crucial one and we in India should be raising this issue seriously and asking about the observance of safety rules and building codes in our own cities – particularly for major public constructions like airports, bridges, metro networks, highways, power plants, etc. India remains a very lowly regulated country where rulebooks are ‘bypassed’ routinely to get permits/contracts, quality is ‘fixed’, haphazard electrical wiring dangling from buildings and roads is an everyday sight, badly designed roads that provoke serious accidents, surreal pavements that have caved in here and there, lax fire standards [5], clogged urban drainage systems [6] [7], construction disasters [8] are a regular occurrence. Large ’irregular’ informal working-class and migrant-worker neighbourhoods of our cities including in the National Capital with densely populated slums have limited governance by the state. Alongside, there are big-money-driven urban real estate for the middle class where governance is on discount with thousands of multistoried constructions in our cities that don’t meet construction standards, here the builder’s lobbies are too powerful and well-connected with authorities willing to look the other way. Since 2014 the Modi Government has been pushing its big ticket ‘smart cities’ programme and is on a major infrastructure development spree. There is no engineering audit on the observance of rules on construction standards or safety norms and prior planning for risks of major accidents or natural disasters including earthquakes. An official document [9] from 2021 on earthquake-risk areas or seismic zones in India shows that —Zone-4 the second most seismic category, has places like Delhi (NCR), Amritsar, Imphal, Kohima, Calcutta, Chandigarh, Darjeeling, Dehradun, Patna, Srinagar among others. This one size fits all list is uneven and has Delhi NCR and the city of Calcutta which are gigantic urban regions bigger than the quake-hit locations in Turkey or Syria. The obvious questions to ask here are: Are most buildings in India’s zone 4 cities earthquake-proof? Are these very big and smaller cities prepared, their civil defense systems, and citizens trained and equipped to handle a very large-scale disaster … here too the response is a big No. Nobody knows if credible risk simulation studies have been done on what may happen if the Delhi-NCR region were to be struck by a high-intensity earthquake. These are very important issues of public interest that must be taken up by political parties and urban social movements on an urgent basis. Prepare for it before it’s too late.

February 11, 2023 - HK

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