NEW DELHI - The ramshackle neighborhoods of northeast Delhi are home to 2.2 million people packed along narrow alleys. Buildings are made from a single layer of brick. Extra floors are added to dilapidated buildings not meant to handle their weight. Tangles of electrical cables hang precariously everywhere.
If a major earthquake struck India’s seismically vulnerable capital, these neighborhoods - India’s most crowded - would collapse in an apocalyptic nightmare. Waters from the nearby Yamuna River would turn the water-soaked subsoil to jelly, which would intensify the shaking.
The Indian government knows this and has done almost nothing about it.
An Associated Press examination of government documents spanning five decades reveals a pattern of warnings and recommendations that have been widely disregarded. Successive governments made plans and promises to prepare for a major earthquake in the city of 16.7 million, only to abandon them each time.
The Delhi government’s own estimates indicate nine out of every 10 buildings in the city are at risk of moderate or significant quake damage, yet the basic disaster response plan it had promised to complete nearly three years ago remains unfinished. There are nearly no quake-awareness drills in schools and offices, and tens of thousands of housing units are built every year without any earthquake safety checks.
‘At the end of the day, people at the helm of affairs are not doing anything.’
Fearing many buildings could crumble in ruins after a major earthquake, the Delhi government began work in 2005 with US government assistance to reinforce just five buildings - including a school and a hospital - it would need to begin a rudimentary relief operation to deal with the dead, wounded, and homeless. Six years later, only one of those buildings is earthquake-ready.
“At the end of the day, people at the helm of affairs are not doing anything,’’ said Anup Karanth, an earthquake engineering expert.
In its attitudes to disaster preparedness India is like many other poor nations - aware of the danger but bogged down by both sheer inertia and more immediate demands on its resources.
But Delhi faces immense earthquake risks. Last September, two minor jolts sent thousands of scared residents into the streets, and experts say a big one looms.
As long ago as 1960, after a moderate quake cut power and plunged Delhi - then a city of 2.7 million - into darkness, the Geological Survey of India advised that all large buildings in the capital needed a plan for earthquake safety.
A series of reports by other agencies have expanded on that conclusion in recent years, but both the city and national governments have ignored almost all of the recommendations.
Some reports were ignored because of sheer apathy, others because of shifting priorities. In a city and country growing at lightning speed with huge problems of poverty and hunger that need more immediate solutions, earthquake preparedness has never been at the top of the list. Some plans begun with good intentions fell by the wayside.
That is what happened to the 2005 plan to prepare five important buildings in the capital for an earthquake.
Government engineers were sent to California to train. But the following year - with only the school made earthquake ready - all the engineers were taken off the project. They were reassigned to build stadiums for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, an athletic competition held in Delhi, said M. Shashidhar Reddy, the vice chairman of India’s National Disaster Management Agency.
The scale of the problem “really hasn’t sunk into the minds of the people,’’ Reddy said.
Just last year, a Delhi government agency ordered all new home buyers to get a building safety certificate that would mark their homes as structurally sound before registering property. But it later withdrew the order, saying there weren’t enough engineers trained to conduct such inspections.
“That’s like saying let’s not have any traffic rules because we don’t have enough policemen,’’ said Hari Kumar, who heads Geohazards India, an organization that promotes earthquake awareness.