Kerala’s vulnerability to earthquakes: action lacking

Kerala is yet to take steps for reduction of vulnerability from earth quakes though the issue had come to the fore several times during the past two decades.

As many as 45 earthquakes had been recorded in Kerala during the 20th century. On the basis of assessment of about 65 earthquakes recorded in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Centre for Earth Science Studies here had stated that there was possibility of earthquakes of the magnitude of up to 6 on the Richter scale occurring in the State. (Sensitive instruments have recorded around 200 mild tremours in Kerala from 2001 besides a few of magnitude of less than 4.)

Earthquake chart

Historic earth quakes: from 19th century to 2001

The most vulnerable areas were in Kochi and Alappuzha where buildings sit on 400-metre-deep alluvial soil. These soil formations could get fluidised in the event of even moderate earthquakes leaving to devastation as hardly any of the buildings there are designed to withstand earthquakes.

The Kerala Assembly Committee on Environment had called for enforcement of national building code as back as in 2001. It had suggested that the strength of buildings in earthquake prone areas should be tested using the services of experts and measures taken to strengthen weak buildings. The quality of materials used for construction of multi-storeyed buildings should be ensured. Use of wood and bamboo should be encouraged in the construction of houses for the poor.

Though BIS standards exist, they are not being followed for building construction. Houses for even tribals were being built with concrete though many tribal communities liked to live in thatched homes. Though a five-year, UNDP-funded earthquake vulnerability reduction project was taken up in Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode from 2003-04, nothing much was of heard of its results. The disaster management policy, drawn up in 2010, also remains largely on paper.

Now, it is hoped that the expert committee which is considering changes of to Kerala Municipal Rules would look into matters connected to seismic safety. It is high time that Kerala moved to quake-resistant constructions and retrofitting of buildings for safety, especially in risk prone areas of Kochi and Alappuzha.

Kochi Metro project and E. Sreedharan

The controversy over Kochi Metro Rail points to people’s lack of trust over Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and his government, and for that matter, any government in Kerala. They trust octogenarian E. Sreedharan (former MD of Delhi Metro Rail Corporation) to complete the Metro project efficiently and without much time lag.

Mr. Sreedharan naturally wants an organisation behind him and he wants the one that he is familiar with — the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC). And DMRC had agreed to be behind him and the only formality that remained was ratification of agreement by the director boards of the DMRC and the Kochi Metro Rail Limited formed to implement the project.

Now the DMRC is backtracking under oblique pressure from politicians and bureaucrats who want to the contract to be entrusted to others.  It is clear that the arguments being advanced against DMRC participation are just being raised as excuses.  While every private company wants to expand, the public sector DMRC just wants to confine itself to Delhi!  It maintains that it is too preoccupied with its work in Delhi that it does not have the resources to undertake work in Kerala.

Delhi Metro

Delhi Metro       Photo: Roy Mathew

If this is true, one wonders why it had agreed to participate and had even undertaken preliminary works. If DMRC had any real problems in taking up the work, would not Mr. Sreedharan and others known that?

This is not to say that the DRMC could be the most qualified company to undertake the work. It depended on multinational companies for civil works, design, and installation of signaling and electrical works for Delhi Metro. The coaches were imported. As a contractor for the Delhi airport express metro line, the DMRC had faltered. It had built the line for Reliance and operations had to be suspended in six months for rectification of problems.

However, the bet here is on Mr. Sreedharan who has a clean image. The Opposition and large section of people believe that large scale corruption and delays would occur if Sreedharan is not overseeing the project.

Related blog post:
Project review (in Malayalam)