Sunday, April 26, 2015

Is Delhi Next?

The continuing tragedy of the massive earthquake that hit Nepal on Saturday must re-focus our attention on the seismic dangers that arise out of the Indian subcontinent's tectonic history. As part of what became the African continent but drifted away and crashed into the Eurasian plate, the Australia-India plate remains highly seismically active, particularly along the Himalayan arc from Balochistan to Manipur and the zone around the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Moreover, the Himalayan arc has experienced what would be called a seismic gap - a long period of time during which no large earthquake took place despite increasing energy build-up. In that sense, the Nepal Earthquake is not entirely unexpected, but impossible to predict with any useful precision by modern standards.

What is even more concerning is the fact that the most powerful city in the region, the Indian federal capital New Delhi, also lies in a highly seismically active zone and is also going through a long seismic gap. Therefore, while a precise prediction is impossible, there is strong likelihood that New Delhi too will be hit. This puts in danger not just the denizens of the city-state, but also India's civilian and military leadership and any nuclear and non-nuclear defense systems there. At this point of time, New Delhi is protected by a missile defense shield similar to Israel's Iron Dome system, but a devastating earthquake would leave it vulnerable to nuclear strike from either China or Pakistan. Fortunately, there is an alternate security hierarchy in place somewhere safe, so the rest of the country will probably not fall into disarray.

As for civilian casualties in New Delhi, it will be grave. The city-state is home to over 19 million inhabitants, making it one of the most densely populated urban conglomerations in the world. This is further surrounded by the highly populous state of UP. The pressing danger in Delhi is in the unauthorized colonies that have been regularized by successive administrations, including the current one of Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. While it might be politically convenient to do this, these unauthorized colonies do not subscribe to the strict building codes that are required to ensure seismically secure construction in the area. These colonies are home to over 5 million people and a powerful earthquake in the area would be devastating.

There is a need to retrofit these structures to at least protect some lives. This is possible through engineering but requires political will. The Chief Minister can continue with his stunts of distributing freebies and irrationally high dole to non-existent farmers, but the fact is that Delhi is on a ticking time bomb and his government should do something about it to save lives. However, the CM is presumably too busy with his dreams of becoming PM to care too much about any lives at all. 

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