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The Hindu Notes for 30th March 2019

Topic Discussed: The Hindu Notes of 30th March 2019

Pathways to an income guarantee

There is a compelling case for spending ₹3.6 lakh crore on the poor, but it must be done carefully

  • The idea of a minimum income guarantee (MIG) has caught up with political parties. A MIG requires the government to pay the targeted set of citizens a fixed amount of money on a regular basis. With the promise of the Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY) by the Congress party, it is clear that the MIG is going to be a major political issue for the coming general election. A limited version of the MIG in the form of the PM KISAN Yojana is already being implemented by the NDA government at the Centre. State governments in Odisha and Telangana have their own versions of the MIG.
  • NYAY is the most ambitious of these MIG schemes. It promises annual income transfers of ₹72,000 to each of the poorest five crore families comprising approximately 25 crore individuals. If implemented, it will cost the exchequer ₹3.6 lakh crore per annum.
  • Important questions

  • Several questions arise. Is there a case for additional spending of such a large sum on the poor? The answer is yes. Can government finances afford it? No. Even if the government can mobilise the required sum, is the scheme a good way of spending money on the poor? No.
  • Many landless labourers, agricultural workers and marginal farmers suffer from multi-dimensional poverty. Benefits of high economic growth during the last three decades have not percolated to these groups. Welfare schemes have also failed to bring them out of destitution. They have remained the poorest of Indians. Contract and informal sector workers in urban areas face a similar problem. Due to rapid mechanisation of low-skill jobs in the construction and retail sectors, employment prospects for them appear increasingly dismal.
  • These groups are forced to borrow from moneylenders and adhatiyas (middlemen) at usurious rates of 24-60% per annum. For instance, for marginal and small farmers, institutional lending accounts for only about 30% of their total borrowing. The corresponding figure for landless agricultural workers is even worse at 15%. There is a strong case for direct income transfers to these groups. The additional income can reduce their indebtedness and help them get by without falling into the clutches of the moneylender.
  • However, the fiscal space is limited. The Congress’s scheme will cost about 1.92% of the GDP. No government can afford it unless several existing welfare schemes are converted into direct income transfers, or the fiscal deficit is allowed to shoot up way above its existing level, 3.4% the GDP.
  • Shape of the scheme

  • The welfare of the poor and downtrodden trumps concerns over the fiscal burden. Nonetheless, the form of an income transfer scheme should be decided carefully. We know very little about the aggregate effects of unconditional cash transfers at the large scale conceived under NYAY.
  • On the one hand, income transfers will surely reduce income inequalities and help bring a large number of households out of the poverty trap or prevent them from falling into it in the event of shocks such as illness or death of an earner. The poor spend most of their income, and a boost in their income will provide a boost to economic activities by increasing overall demand. On the other hand, large income transfers can be inflationary, which will hurt the poor more than the rich.
  • The effect of cash transfers on the workforce is also a moot point. In principle, the income supplement can come in handy as interest-free working capital for several categories of beneficiaries such as fruit and vegetable vendors and small artisans, and promote their businesses and employment. At the same time, large cash transfers can result in withdrawal of beneficiaries from the labour force. A MIG can also provide legitimacy to the state’s withdrawal of provisions of the basic services.
  • There are very few studies on these issues. Existing studies have dealt with limited income transfers to only a small set of the poor. In the absence of empirical evidence regarding the aggregate effects of large income transfers, it will be irresponsible to dismiss the concern over such issues as elitist.
  • For one, the scheme should be launched in incremental steps. An income support of, say, ₹15,000 per annum can be a good start. This amount equals 30% of the annual income of marginal farmers; and more than one-fourth of the average consumption of the poorest 40% of households. Studies show that even a small income supplement can improve nutrient intake at high levels of impoverishment. Besides, it can increase school attendance for students coming from poor households. This would mean improved health and educational outcomes, which in turn will make the working population more productive. Moreover, with a modest income support the risk of beneficiaries opting out of the workforce will also be small.
  • Besides, a moderate income support can be extended to a larger set of poor households. For the lowest 40% (about 10 crore households), income is less than their consumption expenditure. In other words, on an average these households have to borrow to meet their expenses. These people can surely do with additional income support.
  • Identifying beneficiaries

  • According to the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) 2011, around six crore households suffer from multidimensional poverty. These include the homeless, tribal groups, the landless, families without an adult bread-earner or a pucca house. Within this group it is almost impossible to exactly identify the poorest five crore households to be covered under the NYAY.
  • However, the SECC along with the Agriculture Census of 2015-16 can help identify a larger set of poor based on verifiable criteria; namely, multidimensional poverty, landlessness and the marginal farmer. Together, these criteria cover the bottom 40%, approximately 10 crore households. Drawing upon the experiences with the poor-centric welfare schemes such as MNREGA, Saubhagya and Ujjwala and PM-KISAN, datasets can be prepared and used to update the list of needy households.
  • For these 10 crore households, to start with, the scheme will require ₹1.5 lakh crore per annum. The PM KISAN Yojana can be aligned to meet a part of the outlay. Moreover, the tax collection would need to be increased by reintroducing the tax for the super-rich. Nonetheless, the required amount is beyond the Centre’s fiscal capacity at the moment. Therefore, the cost will have to be shared by the States. Still the scheme would have to be rolled out in phases, as was done for MGNREGA.
  • Not a substitute for services

  • All considered, no income transfer scheme can be a substitute for universal basic services. The direct income support to the poor can deliver the intended benefits only if it comes as a supplement to the public services such as primary health and education. This means that direct transfers should not be at the expense of public services for primary health and education. Moreover, universal health and life insurance are equally important, and so is the case with crop insurance. Each year, medical shocks and crop failures push many families into the poverty trap. The scope of Ayushman Bharat needs to be expanded to include outdoor patient treatments. The PM Fasal Bima Yojana can be made more comprehensive by providing free and wider insurance coverage.
  • There is a strong case for spending ₹3.6 lakh crore on the poor. But let’s do so carefully.
  • The irrelevance of secularism

    The formula that the state must remain equidistant from all religions is proving to be unworkable

  • A debate has flared up, especially after the Supreme Court’s Sabarimala judgment, on whether the state should leave religion alone. I believe in the Indian context, it is more pertinent to ask whether religion can leave the state alone. The relevance of this question is underscored by the unique definition of secularism espoused by the founding fathers of the Constitution, namely that the Indian state must be equidistant from all religions while allowing religions equal space in the public sphere.
  • Question of definition

  • For several reasons this definition of secularism has created a lot of confusion as to what the term stands for. First, the formulation was impractical, given the huge numerical disparity in the religious composition of the Indian nation. This demographic inequality paved the way for the intrusion, and now proliferation, of majoritarian religious symbols, idioms and practices in the state’s domain.
  • Second, given the congenitally religious nature of Indian society and the consequent political import of identity based on religion, political parties, almost without exception, found it convenient to use religious sectarianism to advance their fortunes. The success of the Muslim League in hiving off Muslim majority areas from the rest of the country in 1947 on the basis of a religio-sectarian agenda gave a major fillip to Hindu nationalist organisations, such as the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Thee parties were already active in the pre-Partition political arena but were of marginal importance during the freedom movement. The demographic transformation of independent India, as a consequence of Partition, into a Hindu majority of around 80% paved the way for the emergence of Hindu nationalist parties spawned by the RSS — first the Jan Sangh and then the BJP — as major political players in the country.
  • The Congress itself had a Hindu nationalist component that had been overshadowed by the ideology of composite nationalism because of the towering personality of its leading exponent, Jawaharlal Nehru. This ideology began to decline from the early 1960s with the deterioration in Nehru’s health. The decline was temporarily halted in the late 1960s during the first few years of Indira Gandhi’s tenure as Prime Minister by the influence on her of her mentor, P.N. Haksar, an uncompromising secularist. But it became clear that she was not above playing the religio-sectarian card. She did so successfully in order to return to power in 1980.
  • Rajiv Gandhi continued in his mother’s footsteps in the aftermath of her assassination by giving a free hand to marauding mobs that massacred thousands of Sikhs in Delhi. He subsequently followed a policy of dual appeasement: first getting Parliament to overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Shah Bano case and then by opening the Babri Masjid, which had remained closed since 1949, to allow Hindu religious rites to be conducted in its premises.
  • Nonetheless, despite the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the Atal Bihari Vajpayee interregnum that saw the Gujarat massacre of 2002 (in picture), the fiction of the secular state was maintained as long as the Congress remained in power in New Delhi. The accession to power on its own steam of the BJP in 2014 removed the secular veneer almost totally. The intrusion of religion into the state’s arena in the form of donning of religious garb by state functionaries while carrying out state duties and participation in religious rites while acting in their official capacity has now become common. The proliferation of cow vigilantism and the anti-Muslim rhetoric of some of the BJP’s leading lights provide further evidence of this trend.
  • Blatant appeals now

  • The appeal to religious identity, always a part of India’s political landscape, has now become much more blatant. The Congress, impressed by the electoral success of the BJP apparently based on its Hindu nationalist agenda, has become the B-team of the latter by embracing soft Hindutva as compared to the BJP’s hard Hindutva. Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s flaunting of his caste and religious affiliation while visiting dozens of temples in States where elections were held recently are indications of how far the Congress has changed from its heyday under his grandfather.
  • One cannot blame politicians of either the BJP or the Congress for taking recourse to majoritarian nationalism for this is what currently sells in the electoral market. Politicians are, above all, interested in attaining power and the route to power today seems to lie through Hindu nationalism, whether hard or soft. If one needs someone or something to blame, it is the definition of secularism, or lack of it, adopted at the time of Independence.
  • The framers of the Constitution, Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar included, failed to erect an unbreachable firewall between state and religion that would clearly prevent the intrusion of religious idioms, practices and agendas into the political arena and insulate the state from the religious sphere. One can understand why they failed to do so. The innate religious nature of Indian society and the after-effects of Partition on religious grounds precluded this option. However, in this context, to call the ideological foundation of the Constitution secularism, although the term was not explicitly included in the document until 1976, has done great harm to the concept. It has done even greater disservice to the country by thoroughly confusing the public as to what the term denotes.
  • The formula that the state must remain equidistant from all religions, the unique Indian definition of secularism, is clearly unworkable. The sooner we realise this reality the easier it will be for all concerned to come to terms with the current trajectory of Indian politics. It is time to jettison the use of the term rather than confound the Indian public even further as to what ‘secularism’ really means.
  • A stop sign

    India must raise its ambition on reduction in carbon emissions

  • It is no surprise that the International Energy Agency found that India’s carbon emissions grew by 4.8% during 2018, in spite of the national focus on climate change in energy policy. There is wide recognition of the fact that Indians are not historically responsible for the problem, and it is the rich nations led by the U.S. that have pumped in the stock of carbon dioxide linked to extreme climate impacts being witnessed around the globe. As the IEA points out, India’s emissions have grown, but per capita they remain less than 40% of the global average. Equity among nations is therefore at the centre of the discussion on energy emissions, and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities is central to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Reassuring as this may be, the universal challenge of climate change has grown to such proportions that urgent action to sharply cut carbon emissions is crucial, and all countries, including India, must act quickly. Intensive measures in key sectors — scaling up renewables to raise their share in the energy mix, greening transport, updating building codes and raising energy efficiency — will help meet the national pledge under the Paris Agreement to cut energy intensity of GDP by 33-35% by 2030, over 2005 levels.
  • At the global level, renewable sources of energy grew by 7% during 2018, but that pace is grossly insufficient, considering the rise in demand. Moreover, it was China and Europe that contributed the bulk of those savings, in large measure from solar and wind power, indicating that India needs to ramp up its capacity in this area. In fact, as the founder of the International Solar Alliance, India should lead the renewables effort. Yet, in spite of falling prices and rising efficiency, the potential of rooftop solar photovoltaics remains poorly utilised. It is time State power utilities are made responsible for defined rates of growth in the installation of rooftop systems. A second priority area is the cleaning up of coal power plants, some of which are young and have decades of use ahead. This process should be aided by the UNFCCC, which can help transfer the best technologies for carbon capture, use and storage, and provide financial linkage from the $100 billion annual climate fund proposed for 2020. India’s record in promoting green transport has been uninspiring, and emissions from fossil fuels and the resulting pollution are rising rapidly. The Centre’s plan to expand electric mobility through financial incentives for buses, taxis and two-wheelers needs to be pursued vigorously, especially in the large cities. Inevitably, India will have to raise its ambition on emissions reduction, and participate in the global stocktaking of country-level action in 2023. It has the rare opportunity to choose green growth, shunning fossil fuels for future energy pathways and infrastructure.
  • A reality check

    The move on Azhar in the UNSC is welcome, but India must continue to engage with China

  • The U.S. move to take a listing request for Jaish-e-Mohammad founder Masood Azhar directly to the UN Security Council is an indicator of the frustration of a majority of the Council’s permanent members with China’s refusal to budge on the issue. The many obvious reasons to ban Azhar have been repeated often: the JeM was banned in 2001 with a listing at the UNSC that names Azhar as its founder and financier; he was accused of working with al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden; and he was seen by the entire world on TV screens as he was exchanged for hostages at Kandahar following the 1999 Indian Airlines hijack, after being released from an Indian prison where he was held on charges of terrorism. Since 2001, the JeM and Azhar have claimed responsibility for several terror attacks that resulted in the deaths of dozens of innocent persons, including, most recently, the February 14 attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama. Even so, China has used its veto on Azhar’s listing at the 1267 UNSC Sanctions Committee four times in the past decade, evidently to protect Pakistan. Its stand on Azhar is at variance with the otherwise tough stand on terror in Xinjiang province. Also, it has allowed terrorists and groups based in Pakistan to be listed at the UNSC since 2001 and agreed to “grey list” Pakistan at the Financial Action Task Force for terror financing. Just on Thursday, it joined other UNSC members in passing a resolution against terror financing.
  • With the latest proposal, the U.S. plans to “shame” China by bringing the Azhar listing to a public debate at the UNSC. And if that fails, it is reportedly considering a UN General Assembly statement condemning Azhar. The listing of Azhar is an unfinished task India is justified in pursuing. However, the latest U.S. move comes with some concerns. To begin with, there is no indication that China is ready to change its stand, particularly in the face of coercion or threat from the U.S., and it could veto this proposal as well. There appears to be little to be gained at present by forcing China further into Pakistan’s corner, especially as New Delhi has said it would pursue the Azhar listing with China with “patience and persistence”, in keeping with its desire not to sacrifice the bilateral relationship over the issue. It is equally unlikely that a world power like China would be moved by the threat of public humiliation. New Delhi must applaud the strong support the U.S. and the other UNSC members have provided on the issue of cross-border terror threats, and on the vexed issue of Azhar’s listing. But it must be careful not to stake too much on an immediate win at the UNSC vis-a-vis China, and keep its expectations realistic.
  • The rumble beneath their feet

    Maharashtra’s Palghar district has experienced thousands of small quakes since November last year, raising fears of a larger one. Fortifying the district for such an event is going to be challenging, reports Priyanka Pulla

  • When the earthquakes first began, in November 2018, the children of Palghar’s Nareshwadi Learning Centre were terrified. The youngest, aged 5-7 years, burst into tears. Five months later, the tremors continue, but the children are used to it, much to the chagrin of the school coordinator, Vivek Siyaram Patel. He would like them to stay alert and dash out of their classrooms every time the ground shakes. That’s what they have been taught to do. But when the largest quake occurred on March 1, its noise like a large Diwali bomb, “the bigger kids ran out, but the younger children kept sitting inside. It’s like they were used to it,” says Patel.
  • Like thousands of residents of Palghar, a district on Maharashtra’s coastline, Patel and the rest of the staff at Nareshwadi, a residential school for underprivileged children, aren’t sure if their buildings will withstand further shaking. Cracks have already appeared in the school’s dining hall. A few of the tall metal rods that support the hall’s sloping roof have bent with each quake. Unsure of whether everything will come down with the next tremor, some 220 of the school’s boarders now sleep in tents.
  • The tremors have been numerous. Since November, hundreds of earthquakes, ranging between 1 and 4.3 on the local magnitude scale, or ML (broadly equivalent to the widely used moment magnitude, or Mw), have struck Palghar district, 150 km north of Mumbai. Around 18 of Palghar’s villages, with 63,000 residents, have borne the brunt because of their proximity to the epicentres.
  • These earthquake “swarms”, as clusters of small quakes are called, have pushed Hyderabad’s National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI) and Delhi’s National Centre for Seismology (NCS) to install seismometers in the region. These devices will help measure the magnitude of the quakes. The district administration, meanwhile, is scrambling to provide tents for those who are too scared to live in their homes; some 1,300 community tents have been distributed. Simultaneously, a team from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mumbai, headed by structural engineer Ravi Sinha, is training Palghar’s engineers and masons to assess the safety of constructions in the quake hotspots.
  • Much of this panic could have been avoided if existing building regulations had been better enforced. Long before these temblors began, Palghar was classified as Zone 3 on India’s seismic zoning map, which means it can expect quakes measuring up to 6-6.5 on the Mw scale; for comparison, the devastating 1993 Latur quake measured 6.1 Mw. So, local laws require all constructions in Palghar to be designed for such quakes. They must comply with the National Building Code and tick multiple boxes of earthquake-resistant design.
  • As things stand, repeated battering by the swarms have left several homes with cracks, and a handful with collapsed walls. A preliminary assessment in Palghar’s Dahanu and Talasari subdivisions, the worst hit locations, has identified 1,750 damaged houses. While these are mostly in rural areas, where the enforcement of seismic codes is poorer, urban areas may not be better off. According to IIT Mumbai’s analysis of the 2011 Housing Census data, 10 lakh people in Palghar live in potentially weak homes. Unless these structures are upgraded, the region will likely suffer loss of life in the event of a larger quake.
  • The chances of a large quake (upto 6.5 Mw) are no longer remote, according to seismologists. Even though the initial suspicion was that the swarms were a temporary phenomenon linked to rains, NGRI’s seismologists have argued that the real reason is tectonic activity along a geological fault in Palghar. “If it is related to a fault, we cannot be complacent that quakes will continue to be small,” says Sinha. Moreover, given that the epicentres are in rural areas, “it is likely that a disproportionately large fraction of buildings will be damaged with relatively low shaking,” he adds.
  • Searching for the cause

  • Several residents of Dahanu don’t remember prior earthquakes in the region. “This is the first time I am experiencing it,” says Babasaheb N. Pawar, the principal of Nareshwadi Learning Centre, who has been in Palghar for 30 years. Then there’s the noise, described sometimes as a deep rumbling and at others as a large bomb. “My heart would leap out of my body,” says Patel. “Can you imagine the condition of the little children?”
  • Still, despite the absence of tremors in Palghar’s memory, the Deccan peninsula has a history of earthquake swarms. This phenomenon, thought to be triggered by rains, is called hydro-seismicity. Even though the tremors seem tectonic — the kind that occurred in Bhuj, Latur or Nepal — they aren’t. While both involve geological faults — cracks in the earth’s crust along which rocks can move — that’s where the similarity ends. The movement of the rocks, which causes earthquakes, is triggered by very different mechanisms.
  • In hydro-seismicity, heavy rains seep into the top layers of earth, compressing the rock beneath and increasing the pressure inside the rock pores. “It’s a bit like a baby elephant sitting on a mattress,” says Kusala Rajendran, a seismologist at Bengaluru’s Indian Institute of Science. According to one estimate, for each 10 m rise in groundwater level, pore pressure increases by 1 bar (bar is a unit of pressure, equal to 100,000 pascals). When this happens in the vicinity of existing geological faults, the pressure can destabilise them. Another way for rain to trigger quakes is if the water enters faults that are sealed and inactive. “Here, the water can lubricate the clayish contact surface of the fault, causing it to slip,” she explains.
  • Such hydro-seismicity has struck the peninsula before. In October 2017, residents of Hyderabad’s Borabanda suburb experienced small quakes for over a month. They began after intense rains, says D. Srinagesh, who heads NGRI’s seismology observatory, and measured less than 1 ML each, a tiny wobble. “But they sounded like Diwali hydrogen bombs. People grew panicky and were running helter-skelter,” he recalls. When the rains ended, however, the tremors stopped. Similar phenomena have occurred in Andhra Pradesh’s Nellore in 2015, Saurashtra’s Talala in 2007 and 2011, and Madhya Pradesh’s Khandwa district.
  • Such quakes have distinct characteristics — they are small, shallow, noisy, and typically end after the monsoon water has drained. Small means they never exceed 4 in magnitude, making them relatively harmless. Shallow implies that they originate from within 5 km of the earth’s crust. This also makes them audible, in contrast with intermediate and deep earthquakes, that emerge from beyond 60 km.
  • The NCS, the first body to set up 4 seismometers in Palghar in December, opines that the earthquake swarms could well be hydro-seismicity. Its calculations show a shallow depth of 3-4 km. “We are going by experience here,” says Vineet K. Gahalaut, director of NCS. “We have seen several such swarms in western and central India.” But he cautions that tectonic activity cannot be ruled out.
  • In contrast, NGRI, which also began monitoring the Palghar quakes in January, is convinced that the quakes are tectonic, triggered by the same forces that cause planetary tectonic plates to drift over the molten mantle. The NGRI now has six seismometers in Palghar, and its data suggest that most quakes are emerging from between 6 km and 15 km, too deep for rain-related seismicity.
  • Another factor that has swayed NGRI’s assessment is how long the quakes have continued. “They should have died down by now,” says Srinagesh. “Usually, they have a lifespan of a month or two.” But the Palghar tremors have continued for nearly five months, at the rate of 30-35 per day. Further, their magnitude has risen, with the largest ML 4.3 quake occurring on March 1.
  • The differences between NGRI’s and NCS’ depth estimates could be due to a number of reasons. To calculate depth, scientists use the timings at which seismic waves arrive at their seismometers. Then, based on assumptions of the wave velocity, and distance of each seismometer from the epicentre, they estimate the depth that best fits their data. This means that the calculations have error margins, and depend a lot on assumptions made. Since neither NCS nor NGRI have published their data, it’s hard to say why their estimates differ. “I haven’t seen their data, so I cannot comment on the accuracy. But in general, for geophysical problems, there is no unique solution,” says Rajendran.
  • Sinha, however, has seen NGRI’s data and is inclined to buy its arguments. The district administration too is working on the assumption that the quakes are not mere hydro-seismicity. “I have reasons to believe that what the NGRI is saying is correct,” says Sinha.
  • The implications of this are significant. While rain-related seismicity peters away quickly, tectonic quakes can be large and destructive. If so, the current swarms could merely be foreshocks before a bigger temblor. It has happened before. In the year before the 1993 Latur earthquake, NGRI recorded several small earthquakes in the Killari region. No one thought they would end in a large one, given the historical lack of seismicity there, but they did. If the same happened in Palghar today, it would find itself unprepared.
  • Fortifying Palghar

  • This is why Sinha’s team is working on a training module for Palghar’s engineers, so that they can assess which buildings are the most vulnerable. Sinha has his task cut out. Prima facie, many structures in the district aren’t earthquake-resistant. Nevertheless, to strengthen every such home in the district is too massive an exercise. “It’s expensive, not just monetarily, but also in terms of available human resources. There are only so many engineers who can be deployed in Palghar to do this, without affecting the governance of the entire State,” Sinha says. For comparison, a World Bank-funded project to repair and reconstruct 225,000 houses in Latur cost about $220 million and took four years.
  • So, Sinha’s strategy is to triage: find the most vulnerable of the vulnerable houses. These will be reconstructed, while others will merely be strengthened. “It is possible to do things so that without demolishing and reconstructing a house, we can strengthen it to the extent that it doesn’t collapse. It may still collapse partially, though,” he says. For example, traditional houses made of irregular stones, or “random rubble”, caused heavy casualties in both the Latur and the 2001 Bhuj quakes. Their walls are made of two vertical layers, or wythes, of stones. When tremors hit, these poorly bonded wythes separate and fall apart. So, one fortifying technique is to add long “through stones” at intervals along the wall’s length. These hold the wythes together when shaking occurs.
  • The scale of the exercise is currently restricted to the 18 quake hotspots, although a larger temblor would spread farther. Around 90 local engineers will be trained. They will scan buildings and inform occupants about safety.
  • Public structures, such as schools and hospitals, will be the top priority, with the government paying for their strengthening. “The idea is that, in the event of a real Zone 3 earthquake, the government’s own capacity should not be degraded,” says Sinha. Private constructions, on the other hand, will have to fund themselves. Only low-income groups will get financial help through the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana.
  • There isn’t much time. Once the monsoon arrives, the government tents may not hold up. So, the assessments must be completed earlier. At the end of it, some of Palghar’s residents may learn that their homes are safe enough to return to, says Sinha. Others may have to upgrade their houses, while still others will have to rebuild altogether.
  • The compliance gap

  • Palghar’s unpreparedness is typical of large parts of India today. Close to 60% of the country lies in Zones 3, 4 and 5, which means these areas can experience moderate to severe quakes. These places legally require all construction to comply with the seismic codes developed by the Bureau of Indian Standards. Yet, a swarm of small temblors has disrupted life in Palghar.
  • Why has compliance been below par? The reasons are complex. First, the worst affected areas are villages, where there is a shortfall of trained engineers. So, even though local laws require home owners to consult a licensed structural engineer and meet NBC requirements, it often doesn’t happen. Says Aseemkumar Gupta, Secretary of the State’s Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Department, “It would be wrong on my part to say that for every building constructed in rural Palghar, there is a structural consultant applying his mind about Zone 3 earthquake issues. It doesn’t happen for 99% of the small houses.”
  • In urban areas, the problems are different. Many constructions are slums built without municipal permissions. Others may follow seismic codes on paper, but not in reality, given the added costs. And municipal bodies do not have the resources to police everyone.
  • It was to tackle such issues that the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) published earthquake management guidelines in 2007. The ambitious document recommended wide-ranging measures such as training engineers, improving enforcement, and raising public awareness.
  • But implementation has been uneven because it isn’t a small task, says Kamal Kishore, an NDMA member. Between the 2001 and 2011 Censuses, for example, close to 3 crore new brick masonry houses came up in India’s earthquake-prone regions. To ensure compliance of all of them would need many more engineers than municipal bodies have at present. “You simply can’t do it overnight,” Kishore says. “Even countries that have turned over their entire building stock successfully have taken not years, but decades.”
  • Rare, but deadly

  • There is another obstacle in the way of earthquake preparedness: quakes are rare, despite their deadliness. Further, intra-plate earthquakes, which occur deep inside the peninsula — such as the Latur, Bhuj and even Palghar quakes — are even more infrequent, compared to Himalayan ones. This makes it likelier that peninsular inhabitants will be unaware of the region’s seismic history. “A large number of people have forgotten about the 1993 Maharashtra earthquake. It’s been more than 25 years and a whole generation has turned over since then,” says Kishore. Not knowing how much damage an earthquake can wreak can take away motivation to spend money on seismic compliance.
  • Still, globally, there is a growing realisation that earthquakes do more than kill humans; they cause mass migrations, job losses, and economic stagnation. Sinha cites New Zealand’s Canterbury earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, which measured 6.3 Mw and 7 Mw. Because the region was known to be situated on a fault, most buildings were appropriately designed. As a result, casualties were fewer than they would have been otherwise.
  • The problem was that even though most structures survived, they subsequently became unusable. “They were designed to be safe against fatalities, but not designed to be stronger than that,” says Sinha. “So they were not safe for people to return after the quakes.” As a result, Christchurch, until then a thriving manufacturing hub, had to demolish over 600 commercial buildings, and cordon off sections for days. According to a 2015 paper in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 6,000 businesses were displaced by the cordon. The New Zealand Treasury estimated the capital cost of the quakes to be equal to 20% of the country’s GDP, a significant hit.
  • For Palghar’s residents, though, GDP is the farthest thing on the mind. It’s the everyday anxiety of not knowing if their homes will collapse, and of sleeping in tents, that gnaws. “We suffered a lot in the initial days,” says Patel. When the tremors began, schoolchildren slept under the open sky during the chilly winter nights. Now, they have tents and bunk beds, but it would be nice just to get back to their rooms.