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Gujarat Earthquake - Rehabilitation plans on shaky grounds

by Dr Sudhirendar Sharma

The Srinagar earthquake of 1885 saw the palace and other royal buildings crumble like a pack of cards. The man-made structures that survived the devastation were the unique Dhajji-Diwari buildings. The 1905 Kangra quake was no less devastating either, raging practically everything to the ground but for the Kat-Ki Kunni houses. The age-old Pherols survived the Uttarkashi quake of 1991.

Built by masons, who had no formal degrees in structural engineering and architectural design, these structures stand today as the epitome of human creative instincts. Yet, these buildings continue to fascinate modern-day engineers who have spent years unfolding the unique features of these earthquake resistant houses of the past. Tragically, however, rarely does this learning translate into constructions based on such masterly designs.

Combination of wood and unreinforced masonry laid on weak mortar gave Dhajji-Diwari buildings the required flexibility. The wooden bands tied the mud mortar walls and imparted ductility to an otherwise brittle structure. The multi- storeyed Kat-Ki Kunni buildings were based on similar principles. Meaning timber-cornered buildings, the Kat-Ki Kunni houses have wood bonding at vertical intervals, both inside and outside the mud masonry, for flexibility and earthquake resistance.

Traditional wisdom helped the entire village of Nandgaon in the Yamunotri valley survive the Uttarkashi quake. With all the Pherols in the village intact, not a single death was reported from this village during the massive quake that rocked the mighty Himalayas in 1991. Raithal, the adjoining village, paid a heavy price for embracing modern construction.

It wasn't complicated engineering that helped Nandgaon survive in its carefully preserved multi-storeyed Pherols. Wooden tie-bands as beams and timber columns as pins hold the coursed-rubble masonry intact with required flexibility. Use of long stones with flat surfaces distributed the load vertically along the wall, minimising the tendency of the wall stones to push or run outward in the event of a tremor. These multi-stroreyed structures can put the best of structural engineers to shame for their present-day vulnerable construction.

Tragically, however, Dhajji-Diwari, Kat-Ki Kuni and Pherols are all part of history that only interests those who value peoples' knowledge as it has traversed and survived down the ages. Had that not been so, traditional earthquake resistant construction would have become essential reading for engineering graduates as well as a dominant component of all disaster rehabilitation programmes.

Each earthquake comes with a grim reminder: incorporate earthquake resistant construction in the rehabilitation plan. The most-recent Gujarat earthquake has posted the message loud and clear. With over 3.7 lakh houses flattened and another 6.5 lakh significantly damaged, there could not have been a grimmer message for mainstreaming traditional knowledge of earthquake resistant house construction in the rehabilitation shelter policy for the state.

With no recorded memory of earthquakes in Gujarat in the recent past, the communities were taken off-guard. The end result was devastation of unprecedented nature. Contrary to educating and making the communities aware about the need for earthquake resistant house construction, rehabilitation programmes currently under implementation in the state are pushing seismic-proof technology on to the people. In contrast, a long-term rehabilitation policy must engage communities into making informed choices.

In the past, lack of education and awareness had proved counter-productive in quake-ravaged Latur. Not knowing that RCC bands prevented walls from cracking during an earthquake, many villagers had replaced RCC bands with plaster belts. The trauma and tragedy of an earthquake often turns people into disbelievers. Having seen the plight of contract-driven mass construction, similar approach may find the communities turn their backs towards such houses - as was in Latur.

The challenge is to mainstream seismic-proof technology as an essential component of all civil construction in the state. House construction is a quiet and private affair involving local masons in rural areas. Unless, these masons learn the art of seismic-proof technology and integrate into their everyday wage earning, houses constructed in rural areas will stay fragile.

Reports indicate that villagers waited long for getting guidelines on seismic-proof construction in Gujarat villages. When no guidelines were received for over two months after the quake, they reverted to building dwellings in a way best understood by them. With monsoons fast approaching, communities were justified in taking their own decisions.

It is indeed tragic that a country where earthquakes occur with increasing frequency and where information on traditional knowledge of seismic-proof house construction is reasonably well documented, village communities have to take ad hoc decisions about their well-being and survival. Clearly, a strategy of mass-awareness as well as a rehabilitation policy for earthquake-prone regions is woefully lacking.

Society's response to natural hazards is interwoven in its socio-cultural upbringing. The way people live in a particular geo-ecological zone is based on centuries of living in harmony with nature. It is tragic that communities in Gujarat lacked such experience and that a state has so far failed to make-up for this lack.

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is Director of the Delhi-based Energy Environment Group.
He may be contacted at:
7 Triveni, A6 Paschim Vihar,
New Delhi 110063
Tel: 011-5250494.

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