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October 16, 2019

Earthquake – Reality Check


How prepared we are to deal with calamities like Earthquake (EQ)

On 26th January 2001, a date etched into the minds of people residing in most parts of Kutch and North Gujarat in India. The ground shook with all its might and the Richter scale showed that a monster of Earthquake of 7.7 magnitude that left, over 13000 people, dead and destroyed nearly 400,000 homes in various cities including Gujarat’s largest city Ahmedabad. In Ahmedabad alone, more than 50 multi-storied buildings collapsed, and several hundred lives lost. The ground shook for a whopping 90 seconds!! Ahmedabad faced this wrath even though it was more than 250 Km from the epicentre of the Quake.

The direct losses post the 2001 quake was close to USD 2097 Mn, the indirect losses i.e. Exports/imports, agricultural output, Industry/services output, health hazards were estimated at USD 635 Mn. Tertiary losses namely long-term development, overall investment climate, funds re-allocation, community migration etc. was pegged at USD 3200 Mn. This was the kind of destruction caused by a quake epicentre close to 250 KM away. Imagine a scenario if a similar EQ with an epicentre very near to our Metro cities: it will cause massive destruction and might send a city to Stone-age for a prolonged period.

Why this grim picture? What if you come to know that Mumbai itself is just a few Kilometres away from 4 fault lines!!! Can our Economic system including our own Insurance industry withstand the devastation caused by an EQ epicentre just a few miles from our major Indian metros? Not likely.
Before we move on to major Indian cities at risk, let us understand the Enigma i.e. an Earthquake.

A Simple definition of Earthquake: An earthquake (also known as a quake, tremor or temblor) is the shaking of the surface of the Earth, resulting from the sudden release of energy in the Earth’s lithosphere that creates seismic waves. In its most general sense, the word earthquake is used to describe any seismic event — whether natural or caused by humans — that generates seismic waves. Earthquakes are caused mostly by rupture of geological faults, but also by other events such as volcanic activity, landslides, mine blasts, and nuclear tests.

The important word here is “Faults”. A fault line is a weak plane deep inside the earth surface or sometimes near the surface. A lateral or vertical movement in this fault line is what causes an Earthquake. So why are we using the word Enigma for EQ, despite the knowledge we have on quakes? because they cannot be predicted.


A recent study by IIT Mumbai, pegs a major fault line in Panvel. The good part is, BMC has already formulated a plan to mitigate losses in Mumbai if this fault line results in a major quake based on this study. However, unlike Delhi, apart from EQ risk, Mumbai also faces the risk of a Tsunami. For a Tsunami to hit Mumbai, you do not require a quake few Kilometres away. A tsunami can reach Mumbai even if the quake is thousands of miles away, say in the Middle East. Is Mumbai, prepared for such a catastrophe? Take the example of the San-Andreas fault in the state of California, which runs right through the city of San-Francisco. This fault line has been studied in detail and help the residents in deciding where to construct buildings. Such in-depth study has been missing for Mumbai.


Speaking of Delhi, the region is vulnerable to earthquakes mainly because of its location. Delhi is situated on top of few active seismic fault lines. Moreover, its proximity to other active seismic fault lines further worsens the situation. Fault lines close to Delhi are Mahendragarh fault line, Moradabad fault line, Delhi-Haridwar ridge zone, and the Sohna fault line. Add to that its proximity to the Himalayan region and the risk increases manifold. East Delhi is at maximum risk as close to 2.2 Million are packed in its corridors.


So how far is the nearest fault line from Kolkata? 4.5 Kilometres!! This fault line can become hyperactive and can trigger a quake with a magnitude of 6 or more. The fault is known as Eocene Hinge Zone and runs right below the city. It further extends to Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sumatra. Though the fault line is inactive, currently it is accumulating a lot of stress due to the Indian tectonic plate pushing towards the Eurasian plate at a rate of 40 mm per year. At some point in time, this stress built-up will be released in the form of an EQ.

We have mentioned earlier that our metro cities are not prepared to withstand a quake centred a few Kms away. We need to learn from Japan and the state of California, who perennially stay with earthquakes, on how to build a disciplined society, which can ensure EQ resistant buildings. This is the only solution to mitigate the loss of lives during a quake.

India so far has never experienced a temblor near to our megacities. This fact is very well known to the experts as well as the government, however, there has been no headway in forming a plan to save our cities from the devastation an EQ can bring on to us. As disastrous EQ does not only impact lives but also destroys businesses, it is imperative for business owners to look at disaster management from natural calamities as investments and not just cost. Insurance and risk consulting hence should be an integral part of business strategy.

Amitav Ghosh in his book “The Great Derangement” examines the limits of human thought when it comes to an event like an environmental catastrophe. He argues that if we can fathom the scenario in all kinds of our organization: Literature, history and politics & (I would also add Insurance) only after that we can draft our response to such an event. However, businesses in India are currently in a deranged mood which hinges more on the reactive approach rather than a pro-active approach. Think about it.