The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Tremors touch off soul-search sessions

Siliguri, Feb. 15: The resonating sound of conch shells across north Bengal around 6.30 am yesterday may have staved off the wrath of nature this time, but faith in providence may not be enough if the Richter scale registers anything beyond 6.5 the next time.

'We have to be prepared,' was the unanimous consensus a day after the earth shook because of a quake epicentred in north Sikkim and measuring 5.7 on the scale. 'We should not wait for death and destruction to actually happen before we are shaken into taking concrete preventive measures,' agreed everyone approached on this problem.

And the need is there. 'We are situated very near the upper Himalayan crust and the Indo-Burma plate, which are prone to earthquakes and falls in Seismic Zone IV,' said Subir Sarkar, head of the weather station at North Bengal University.

Though quakes in the region have remained between 5 and 6 on the scale in the past 10 years, the fact remains that the Himalayan and sub-Himalayan regions are the most vulnerable areas, along with the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

But the question remains as to how prepared we are. With a spree of building activity taking place in Siliguri and surrounding areas, the builders and the authorities concerned should be aware of the construction norms that have been laid down to minimise damage.

'Once a major earthquake occurs, the impact would be sudden, leaving no time to take preventive measures. These measures would have to be taken right now,' said Tarun Maity, project manager of West Bengal Voluntary Health Association, which has brought out a guidebook on disaster preparedness and response.

Construction should be carried out in such a way that cracks and collapses are minimised. 'Before handing over a new building, it is essential for promoters to get a stability certificate from competent persons,' said Partha Chowdhury, member, mayor-in-council (buildings) of the Siliguri Municipal Corporation.

'We are the regulating authority and have imposed a limit of 14.5 metres (four floors) on the height of any new construction in the SMC area since 2001,' he said. But even these buildings would have to be as safe as possible. 'The structural plans are usually passed by engineers empanelled with the SJDA,' he added.

SJDA's superintending engineer Shankar Roychowdhury however assured that all construction carried out by the authority conformed to the IS codes on seismic effects, whether bridges or buildings. 'When we design our structures, we take into account these norms for safeguarding them. But I cannot say anything about other construction taking place,' he said.

Siliguri Mahakuma Parishad executive engineer Parimal Sen, however, felt that awareness levels about safeguarding structures were low. 'We should hold seminars where experts could explain the building codes and norms for tackling earthquakes,' he said.

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