Indian Decade

India Isn’t Ready for Earthquake

The earthquake that struck Japan raises the question of how New Delhi would cope with a similar massive temblor.

The full extent of the devastation that has visited Japan in the aftermath of the earthquake and ensuing tsunami is still being assessed. A country that has long prepared for a disaster of this magnitude is nevertheless finding the extent of the damage tough to cope with.

But unlike Japan, India's level of disaster preparedness leaves much to be desired. The country has a National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA), which is headquartered in New Delhi. The NDMA has been in existence since 2005, having been set up in the aftermath of the disastrous December 2004 tsunami that struck significant portions of South and Southeast Asia, from India's east coast to parts of Indonesia and Thailand. However, it’s far from clear that the NDMA possesses either the requisite capabilities or the necessary personnel to deal with the consequences of a major earth tremor in India's urban centres.

Indeed, the timeliness and relative success of India's disaster mitigation efforts in the wake of the Christmas tsunami may actually have contributed to a sense of complacency. The response of the Indian Navy to this particular natural calamity was extraordinary. Long before other navies, including that of the United States, could reach Indonesia's shores, the Indian Navy was on hand to provide disaster relief. Local governments within India, especially in the afflicted state of Tamil Nadu, also responded with admirable speed.

But the timely and mostly adequate response to this particular contingency shouldn’t lead policymakers to conclude that India's existing capabilities are adequate to cope with a natural disaster within India's heartland. In fact, several factors suggest that it may be appropriate to sound the alarm bell on this count. As recent building collapses in New Delhi in the wake of the heavy monsoon rains underscored, unscrupulous builders in connivance with corrupt local and municipal authorities routinely disregard existing building codes. Routine inspections of safety violations, meanwhile, often aren’t dealt with forthrightly.

Against this backdrop, a major earthquake — even one that’s a fraction of the intensity of the one that struck northern Japan – wouldn’t merely tax existing disaster preparedness responses, but would result in the deaths of untold numbers. As the country reels from revelations of widespread corruption in the allocation of electronic spectrum licenses and seeks to bring the guilty to book, policymakers might also devote some attention to the woeful state of the country's urban infrastructure thanks to the lax enforcement of a host of existing building regulations.

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The reality is that unlike Japan, India won’t be able to marshal the requisite resources to cope with the aftermath of a major seismic event in any of its major urban centres.