With the Great Himalayan Earthquake drawing close, the present state of built environment could result in near total devastation. To avert this eventuality, we have to seriously review the state of our built environment, and identify key factors contributing to seismic vulnerability and accordingly prepare a robust, time bound and practical strategy to set our house in order.
Mw~7.5 September 1, 1803 Garhwal Earthquake is considered the last major earthquake in the region around the Himalayan province of Uttarakhand. Moreover this region is located in the seismic gap of Mw~7.8 April 4, 1905 Kangara and Mw~8.2 January 15, 1934 Bihar–Nepal earthquakes. Not having witnessed major seismic activity for more than 200 years this region faces high seismic hazard, and is often cited by geo-scientists as being a potential candidate for hosting a major tremor in near future. The earthquake risk in the region is further exacerbated by high seismic vulnerability of the building stock.
Seismic vulnerability assessment of 3300, 2840 and 1145 buildings in Mussoorie, Nainital and Bageshwar towns of Uttarakhand using Rapid Visual Screening (RVS) technique has revealed 42.1, 97.9 and 67.5% respectively to be in a highly vulnerable state, and likely to sustain major damages during an earthquake incidence.
The condition of the lifeline buildings in the province that are required to function with enhanced capacity and vigour after any disaster incidence has been assessed as being no better. A study carried out using RVS technique for 1309 buildings of Health Department, 15036 of Education Department, 1578 of the local administration, 298 of Police, and 32 of Fire and Emergency Services spread across the province has revealed 68.7, 78.5, 82.9, 77.8 and 75.0% respectively to be in a highly vulnerable state and likely to become dysfunctional after an earthquake.
The state of the infrastructure not covered by these studies is not expected to be anywhere better, and it is a cause of serious concern as large proportion of the houses are likely to be destroyed or damaged during an earthquake incidence, while most public utilities are to become non-functional. This is to result in a state of utter confusion with the miseries of the affected population getting magnified by manifold.
Traditional of earthquake safety
Awareness on present state of seismic vulnerability of the building stock is sure to surprise people who are aware of the rich tradition of earthquake safe construction of the region. Yes, the region had a tradition of earthquake safety wherein 05 principles were resorted to for ensuring safety of structures during an earthquake; (i) habitation at right place, (ii) firm foundation, (iii) simplicity, (iv) efficient joints and (v) load transfer.
As regards the tradition, it is important to note that the layout, architecture and other building aspects of the buildings were decided upon by the masons in consultation with the person undertaking the construction. The masons of the region had perfected the art of constructing earthquake safe houses using locally available stone and wood over several generations through trial and error, as also experimentation and innovation. This knowledge was passed on systematically from one generation to another as a family tradition, mostly through practical lessons while engaged in construction work.
The masons were thus the custodians of the tradition of earthquake safe construction of the region.
Is it not surprising that despite masons remaining the same, the building stock of the region has been rendered seismically vulnerable?
Causes of vulnerability
But for something having gone seriously wrong the situation would not have deteriorated to this extent. Therefore, before planning any corrective strategy one has to clearly understand the socio-economic dynamics responsible for this change. The interventions introduced without understanding the underlying reasons are not going to be sustainable in long run.
Change in building material
Growing environmental consciousness and ensuing restrictions on both quarrying and felling severely limited the availability of traditional building material in the region, which in turn led to cost escalation, and soon the building material surpassed the purchasing power of the masses.
The local population was thus denied easy and economical access to the building material. Though regulated by customary rules aimed at checking reckless exploitation of natural resources, the building material had always been available freely to the masses. Under changed ground realities they were however required to pay heavily, and that too in cash that had always been in short supply as the economy had been largely subsistence type.
This made the ground conditions favourable for the introduction of an alternative building material. Brick, cement, sand and iron bars soon started to replace the traditional building material. Growth of transport network only facilitated this process.
This change was however not gradual, and therefore did not provide enough opportunities to experiment, learn and innovate.
No building material is inherently strong or weak – the techniques and methods employed for its use however result in resilient or weak buildings. Every building material thus comes with its own strengths, weaknesses and limitations as also techniques, intricacies and precautions that have to be followed while using it for construction purposes. It is therefore necessary to ensure that any change in building material accompanies capacity building of the persons using it.
The change in building material in the region was a result of spontaneous reaction of the masses searching for a viable option rather than a planned initiative. There did not exist a tradition of formal training of the masons, and individuals generally learnt the intricacies of the craft while engaged in construction works and ultimately became adept craftsmen. No one around therefore realised the need of capacity building of the masons. People, at the same time had full faith in the skill and knowledge of the masons, and there seemed nothing awkward in the use of new building material by these persons.
The local masons though not conversant with the intricacies of judiciously using brick, cement and iron bars, were not aware of the importance of learning these skills. Being engaged in construction works for generations they however were confident of constructing equally good structures using the new material as well. They were at the same time faced with livelihood compulsions and had no choice but to adapt to the changed ground realities.
Thus, the change in building material in the region did not accompany technology transfer and capacity building with regard to its use.
The houses in the region thus started getting constructed by masons who did not have basic know how of using the building material, leave apart constructing an earthquake safe house using this material. Vulnerabilities thus started getting incorporated in the building stock of the region.
It is worth noting that even presently there exists no provision of formal training and certification of the masons despite most constructions, particularly in the remote and rural areas being non-engineered and constructed with sole technical inputs from the masons. Moreover, the programs being organised routinely by various agencies for the capacity building of the masons in earthquake safe construction are of extremely short duration and the efficacy of these is often limited by linguistic differences and lack of basic mathematical skills amongst masons who are generally illiterate.
It is important to note that the profession is linked to a particular caste, and despite providing highly important service the profession does not enjoy high status in social hierarchy. With persons from other castes unlikely to take up the profession, apprehensions are often raised on the success of a dedicated course designed for imparting masonry construction skills, and is one of the causes of such a course not being available.
Status denotes hierarchy or the position of an individual in relation to another or others, especially with regard to social or professional standing. Status symbol is understood as an apparent, interpreted, visible and external indicator of the social, economic and market position of an individual as per the set parameters of the society, industry or the market. Status symbol comprises an evolution that is primarily based upon the public perception of certain things and tends to change with time, culture and its values.
Affluent families of the community as also those coming back after retirement were often the first to constructed their houses with new construction material. These houses were generally built according to modern layout and design parameters, and provided individual privacy together with separate space for cooking, and bathing. Flat concrete slab at the top of these houses provided a convenient place for drying agricultural produce and others. Besides catering to the convenience and comfort of the inhabitants, these houses at the same time had better finish and aesthetics.
The houses constructed with the new building material were also readily identifiable amid the clutter of ones built using stone and wood, and in a single glance one could identify and associate it with someone affluent.
The houses built with new construction material thus came to be recognised as a symbol of high social status. Conversely, the traditional houses were looked upon as belonging to families with low social status. This strengthened the popular aspiration to own a brick-cement house.
Despite generally admitting thermal discomfort in brick-cement houses – particularly in one to one private interactions – people could not do away with their aspiration to own one such house because of the social status attached to it.
The rat race
Opinion leaders are individuals who exert a significant amount of influence within their network and who can affect the opinions of connected individuals. These persons play an important role in the flow of information from the mass media to the public.
People often emulate opinion leaders who generally being affluent, were the first to adopt new building material and build their houses using it. Belonging to persons already enjoying high social status and recognition, the brick-cement houses therefore came to be associated with the prosperity of the family, and ensured high social status.
Owning a brick-cement house soon came to be looked upon by masses as an easy, fast and effective tool for ensuring upward movement in the social hierarchy that was otherwise not assured even after hard labour of generations. It was therefore natural for the masses to aspire for brick-cement houses.
The ones who had surplus resources therefore constructed a new brick-cement house, even though it was not really required as they already owned a traditional house that would have served them for a long time to come. The resources spent on constructing the new house could therefore be invested on other productive pursuits and fuelled local economy.
Reckless construction of new houses thus had a negative impact on the economy of the region, as except for the wages of the masons and cost of transporting the material from the road head to the construction site, entire investment went out of circulation from the local economy.
Though aspiring to enhance their social status and keep pace with others in the society, all the families did not have enough surplus to invest on a new house. These families at the same time could not mobilise resources from friends and relatives, as everyone around was busy arranging resources for himself.
Replacing the traditional sloping roof by concrete slab thus came up as an easy and cost effective alternative to constructing a new house as the renovated house resembled the one constructed using brick-cement; at least from a distance as also at first glance.
Chasing their dream of high social status, the people thus started to dismantle traditional wood and stone lined roofs of their houses, and replace these with concrete slabs. The masons consulted for this purpose were not familiar with the precepts of load transfer and bearing capacity, and therefore they readily consented to this proposition.
The stone masonry walls of the traditional houses were however not designed to bear the load of the concrete slab. Moreover the slab and the stone walls of the house lacked proper connection, and amounted to distinct disjointed building element placed in physical proximity. This at the same time raised the centre of gravity as also centre of mass of the renovated buildings much above the ground surface.
All this amounted to an inverted pendulum like situation wherein these status seeking renovated traditional houses were poised for getting razed to the ground at the slightest provocation. Large proportion of the traditional earthquake safe houses of the region were thus rendered highly vulnerable to earthquakes.
Cheap availability of cement and iron bars from various hydropower projects fuelled this trend in many areas. Magnitude of the risk posed by these modified houses can easily be understood from the fact that the death toll in Mw 6.8 October 20, 1991 Uttarkashi Earthquake was concentrated around the Maneri dam on Bhagirathi river with Jamak, Ganeshpur, Netala, and Hina villages located around it accounting for 73, 47, 41, and 39 deaths respectively; 26% of total 768. The walls of the modified houses gave way during the earthquake shaking, and brought down the slabs crushing the residents.
Despite having suffered from reckless renovation of traditional houses, people of the region have not learnt any lesson or the lessons learnt have been forgotten as this practice is still prevalent in the region. Large number of multistories renovated houses in the main market of Almora stand testimony to this.
The roof of the traditional houses has a heavy central log (beam) together with rafters on both the sides, that run from one end to another and support the wooden frame and planks, over which the stone slabs are laid. Wooden elements however tend to detoriorate with the passage of time due to weathering and pest action, and require routine repair, maintenance and replacement.
Restricted availability and enhanced cost of wood however had adverse impact on routine maintenance and the wooden elements supporting the weight of the roof could not be timely replaced. This resulted in major loss of traditional houses in both Mw 6.8 October 20, 1991 Uttarkashi and Mw 6.4 March 29, 1999 Chamoli earthquakes.
Though caused by modification of the traditional houses as also lack of maintenance the earthquake-induced losses made the masses suspicious of the structural safety of the traditional houses. Rather than investigating the precepts of traditional architecture and construction principles, and putting forth reasons of widespread losses suffered during the earthquake events, most researchers classified all houses built without cement mortar as being kuccha houses that were vulnerable to earthquakes and not suited for the region.
This sweeping stroke of pen further faltered people’s belief in traditional houses and motivated them to switch over to the new building material that they started to perceive as being earthquake safe.
20242 houses were fully damaged and 74714 were partially damaged in Mw 6.8 October 20, 1991 Uttarkashi Earthquake while in Mw 6.4 March 29, 1999 Chamoli Earthquake 14724 houses were fully damaged and 72126 were partially damaged.
A number of agencies came forward on the aftermath of these earthquakes for mass awareness on earthquake safety, training of masons on earthquake safe construction, and reconstruction of the houses. These agencies were not aware of the tradition of earthquake safe construction practices of the region. However, based on widespread damage incurred by the earthquake they formed an opinion that the traditional houses were weak and unsafe. In order to benevolently save the masses from future earthquake incidences these agencies considered it necessary to introduce the masses to modern construction practices. Being familiar with brick – cement based construction these agencies promoted these materials during the post-earthquake reconstruction phase.
In the post-earthquake phase, in order to transfer the know how of using the newly introduced building material, a number of training programs were organised for the local masons. These programs however lacked consistency and standardisation, and both duration and content of these programs varied according to the convenience of the organisers. These however had uniformity with regard to the medium of instruction, that was invariably alien for the illiterate masons who couldn’t even comprehend ratios and angles. Moreover, one time brief exposure of something totally new could hardly make any perceptible impact as regards transfer of technical intricacies and knowledge of using the new construction material.
In the post-earthquake phase aggressive awareness campaigns were also carried out to popularise new building material that was promoted as being earthquake safe. To demonstrate this scaled models of houses built on tractor trolleys using traditional material as also new construction material and techniques were shaken violently with great fanfare to demonstrate superior performance of the latter. In far off remote areas recorded videos of the tractor trolley demonstration were screened. All this amounted to making masses suspicious of their own traditional construction practices. General state patronisation of these initiatives proved out to be the last nail in the coffin of the traditional construction practices that were developed painstakingly over several generations.
If not anything else, all these efforts convinced the masses that the houses built using new building material were superior, safe and strong. No one really cared to check if appropriate techniques were being used in their construction.
So the post-earthquake phase saw a boom in the brick – cement based construction with no takers for the traditional building material and construction practices. These new houses were however built invariably by masons not adept in new construction material and techniques, and therefore overwhelmingly large proportion of these houses were not earthquake safe and only added to the stock of unsafe houses in the region.
Even though the Constitution (Article 51 A) entrusts the responsibility of preserving the cultural heritage upon citizens, the state cannot absolve from its responsibility of doing so. If not for earthquake safe features, the age old traditional architecture and construction practices of the region would have been patronised, protected and conserved by the state for the sake of conserving the cultural heritage.
Even if not convinced with construction without cement mortar, the state could have certainly patronised and promoted the traditional design for its aesthetic value and maintaining diversity in the built environment.
The state however chose to join the rat race, and consequently designs of all state sponsored structures housing schools, hospitals, Panchayat gears, and others were finalised by consultants with scant familiarity with the terrain and its tradition.
After complete subjugation of the state to new building material there remained no reason for the masses to rally around and follow their tradition. This proved out to be the final dent in the traditional construction practices of the region, and further derogated it socially.
It is however worth noting that like the private buildings, most state sponsored buildings were also constructed by contractors who invariably engaged local masons that were economically available. The fate of the government buildings was therefore no different and it is evident from the survey undertaken to assess seismic vulnerability of lifeline structures.
Continuously increasing number of tourists and pilgrims visiting the region with improved assess and logistics brought forth a boom in business and employment opportunities along the roadside, and to gain advantage of this opportunity the ones on the downslope side of the road aspired to strike the road level, where all action was taking place.
Jugaad using ill designed, unplanned, haphazard, non-engineered, and ill-reinforced network of beams and columns was generally resorted to for defying steep slopes, and reaching the road level economically. The desperation of the people to reach the road level can be understood from the fact that they often count their building height from the road level, as if the jugaad below did not exist. This technique was also resorted to for encroaching the riverbed and giving shape to river view lodges and resorts.
All this resulted in heavy structures being sited over long columns and multiple soft storeys on steep hill slope or active river channel. All these structures are highly unsafe and likely to rumble down by the slightest provocation. It is worrying to note that many popular road side eating places, dhabas and hotels, including Teen Dhara on Rishikesh – Badrinath National Highway (NH 58), are constructed using similar jugaad. All these are routinely visited by large number of people and slight instability in the slope material could result in a major tragedy.
Habitations in the proximity of roads
Traditionally the people of the region settled down at higher elevations over firm ground, maintaining a safe distance from streams and rivers that provided safety from both flood and landslide besides providing strategic advantage. Settlement over firm ground also provided safety from earthquakes as it restricts secondary amplification of seismic waves.
Despite habitations being located at higher elevations the road network was however aligned in close proximity of streams and rivers. Major portion of the Rishikaesh – Gangotri National Highway (NH 34) is thus aligned along Bhagirathi river while Rishikesh – Badrinath National Highway (NH 58) is aligned along Alaknanda river and Rudraprayag – Kedarnath National Highway (NH 107) along Mandakini river.
With economic opportunities of various sort cluttered along the road that brought in large, and continuously increasing traffic of tourists and pilgrims the masses had a strong incentive to settle down in the proximity of the roads.
Most construction material being transported from the plains, building a house or other structure in the proximity of the road was at the same time cheaper as it saved the cost of transportation of the material from the road head as also the cost of site development. Settling in the proximity of the road was at the same time convenient as it ensured easy access to various civic amenities and public services.
It is important to note that concave bend of the valley often houses seepages, springs and streams that is a big incentive to settle down in the proximity of the concave bend of the road. The concave bend is however more susceptible to landslides and debris flow, which made these habitations vulnerable.
Giving preference to comfort and convenience over safety and security the people of the region abandoned their traditional safe habitations and settled in areas that were unsafe to both landslides and floods as also earthquakes.
Awareness is expected to result in voluntary compliance of disaster safety measures which is a must for building a culture of resilience, and therefore mass awareness is highlighted as an essential pre-disaster activity.
Earthquakes however recur after long intervals and therefore people often fail to appreciate the importance of incorporating earthquake safety features in their houses. Rather than an investment on the safety of the family this is often looked upon as an unnecessary expenditure. Moreover, with no effort to explain financial implications of using earthquake safe construction techniques in a simple manner, masses generally consider it as a cost escalation exercise. Moreover, recurrence interval for a particular area could well run into hundreds of years; Uttarkashi and Chamoli witnessed major ground shaking in 1991 and 1999 respectively after Mw 7.5 September 1, 1803 Garhwal Earthquake while entire Kumaun region has not experienced any major earthquake in the recorded history.
Moreover, people tend to learn no lessons from previous earthquakes or the lessons learnt are quickly forgotten due to long recurrence period. Despite witnessing massive losses to renovated traditional houses people in the region are still busy replacing sloping roofs of their traditional houses with RCC slabs. On its part the state has failed to put in place an organised system for the training of masons in earthquake safe construction. Despite Mw 7.5 September 1, 1803 Garhwal Earthquake as also recent Mw 7.6 January 26, 2001 Bhuj Earthquake having clearly shown that massive losses can be inflicted in areas that are at long distances from the earthquake source, people residing in the foothills and plains around Dehradun, Haridwar, Rishikesh, Kashipur, Rudrapur, Tanakpur, Ramnagar, Haldwani, Kotdwar, and Kathgodam do not consider earthquake a major threat for them, and are busy adding vulnerabilities to the building stock in the form of ill reinforced, ill planned and non-engineered multistories structures.
All this makes it evident that the masses are not aware of earthquake hazard profile of their area as also earthquake risk to with their families are exposed. Moreover, most people consider earthquake as being caused by divine wrath against which they can do nothing to save themselves.People are thus not aware that losses during an earthquake event can be reduced by following certain technological options
The state is no doubt putting in efforts and resources to bring forth mass awareness on various disaster safety related issues, and these include (i) inclusion of disaster management in school curriculum upto X standard, (ii) designating specific day for disaster awareness – the day of 2013 Kedarnath tragedy, June 16 is designated Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Day, (iii) campaigns on radio, TV and social media, (iv) conduct of mock exercises.
It however needs to be admitted that awareness is not getting translated into positive action by the masses and the efforts are not resulting the intended outcome. Failure to achieve desired results is owed to lack of long term strategic vision, and politically tainted and sporadic awareness drive that lacks imagination, innovation, creativity, and novelty. The awareness drive clearly lacks the power of catching the attention of the masses as the actual message is often overshadowed by political overtones. The textbooks introduced for bringing forth awareness amongst students are highly theoretical, and lack local context, and therefore fail to engage the students. The intended activities on the specified day are often target oriented and on many occasions the day is forgotten all together as was in 2021. Moreover despite having undertaken vulnerability and risk assessment of the entire province to various hazards including earthquake, the state has failed to utilise this powerful tool for mass awareness. People are thus not aware of the nature of risk an earthquake could pose in their surroundings. Moreover, political will as regards disaster risk reduction is restricted to post-disaster relief, rescue and rehabilitation phase that attracts high media coverage and publicity.
The state machinery does not seem to realise the very basic fact that adoption of anything new requires change in perception and behaviour which is hard to come by easily and promptly, and requires continuous and tireless efforts. But then, sustained efforts do bring in change in attitude, and family planning is one such example. The days of family planning advertisements are over as was the case during 1970s and 80s and no one has to be presently reminded the importance of family planning and birth control. Lately we have all started to use cutlery and dining table, and most importantly we eat these days with scant regard to the caste of the cook.
Non – engineered houses
Engineered buildings are the ones designed, and constructed according to desired codes while non-engineered buildings are spontaneously, and informally constructed without any engineering inputs.
Most people do not have resources to muster engineering advice that is otherwise also not easily available. There exists no provision of on site technical support and little technical know how is available in vernacular. Majority of the houses, particularly in rural and suburban areas are therefore non-engineered as these are constructed with sole technical advice of masons who finalise not only design and layout of the proposed houses, but also their reinforcement. The mason thus acts as the architect, civil/structural engineer, contractor and of course a brick layer. The structural safety of most buildings is thus a function of the knowledge, skill and capacity of the masons. Not having the know how of using brick, cement and iron bars most houses constructed in the region are seismically unsafe.
As brought out by the seismic vulnerability assessment of lifeline buildings, large proportion of the buildings constructed even by engineering departments of the provincial government are observed to defy the desired construction norms, and are thus categorised as being non-engineered. These buildings are also observed to have low quality of construction and irregularities, and are often vulnerable to pounding.
So not even the buildings constructed totally by the masons but also the ones constructed by engineering departments are observed to be non-engineered. Seismic vulnerability of large proportion of the building stock of the region is thus attributed to lack of appropriate engineering inputs and implementation of these during construction.
The building code is a set of local laws relating to how buildings should be designed or built, especially in view of the safety and quality aspects of the final product. Except for a few urban areas the state of implementation of building codes is in a dismal state. Even in these places enforcement is generally poor, and defaulters easily get their unauthorised construction regularised by paying a financial penalty that is termed “compounding”.
People do not therefore have an incentive for following the codes.
The way forward
The studies carried out previously show that the building stock in the Uttarakhand province of India is in a highly vulnerable state. Being located in the seismic gap of 1905 Kangara and 1934 Bihar – Nepal earthquakes and not having witnessed a major earthquake for more than 200 years, the province is faced with high seismic hazard. The province thus faces severe seismic risk and an overview of ground realities suggests that the magnitude of risk is continuously increasing.
High seismic vulnerability of the building stock is attributed to (i) abrupt change in building material – stone-wood to brick-cement, (ii) lack of technology transfer in the use of brick-cement, (iii) brick-cement houses becoming status symbol, (iv) rat race to construct brick-cement house to improve social hierarchy, (v) reckless renovation of traditional houses to emulate brick-cement houses, (vi) post-earthquake assessments branding traditional houses as being unsafe, (vii) rampant promotion of brick-cement construction as being earthquake safe during post-earthquake phase, (viii) lacking state patronisation of traditional construction precepts, (ix) race to reach the road level to maximise economic opportunities, (x) increased trend of leaving traditional habitations and settling in the proximity of roads, (xi) lacking earthquake awareness, (xii) preponderance of non – engineered houses, and (xiii) non-compliance of building codes.
On the aftermath of April and May, 2015 earthquakes in Nepal many scientists have started to caution that this is not much talked of Great Himalayan Earthquake and the same is yet to strike. So the real challenge awaits us and if we do not prepare in time the situation is going to be much worse that anyone of us could imagine.
Its is a race against time as we are fast approaching the Great Himalayan Earthquake. So we have to take serious view of our vulnerability and plan and act fast. It is really not going to be easy and cheap but then, we would have to pay a heavy cost for our inaction.