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The Assam type house

Because earthquakes don’t kill; the buildings in which we live do.

Written by Sanjoy Hazarika |
Updated: April 30, 2015 12:11:24 am
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As the disaster in Nepal unfolds, many of us in Zone 5 areas — the most quake-vulnerable regions in India, including J&K, parts of Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and the entire Northeast except for Sikkim — are worried anew about the future of our towns and settlements.

Those living in vulnerable buildings in these areas must be even more anxious about their safety. Talking heads, especially architects and disaster experts, give no cause for comfort. For earthquakes don’t kill; the buildings in which we live do. It boils down to human avarice, stupidity and criminality.

The Northeast saw quakes measuring over 8.5 on the Richter scale in 1897 and 1950. The first devastated Shillong. The second demolished hills and unleashed a vast flood that crushed trading towns such as Sadiya and Dibrugarh, its tectonic power raising the bed of the Brahmaputra. This is part of history, creating a new geography and folklore.

Every capital of every Northeastern state is disaster prone, the stronghold of construction contractors and the land mafia, in a tight embrace with politicians and officials. Last year, in Shillong, the high court listed 12 builders who had violated local construction norms. In an interim order, it ruled that since “Meghalaya has been placed under Zone 5 of… seismic activity… it is provided that the private buildings under construction rising more than G+3 shall not go for further construction above the G+3 (ground plus three floors) in Shillong city.”

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GeoHazards International of California, which carries out risk assessments of natural calamities worldwide, was in Mizoram last year. Its study, uploaded on the Net this month, predicted what would happen in the event of a tremor with a magnitude of 7 on the Richter scale: “The scenario paints a stark picture: collapse of 13,000 buildings, 1,000 landslides, 25,000 fatalities, and major damage to utilities and infrastructure. The city’s many concrete buildings — built up to 10 stories tall, without earthquake-resistant features and on landslide-prone slopes — are especially vulnerable to collapse. Poor land-use policies and poor construction practices exacerbate the hazards. Aizawl’s extremely high levels of risk have overwhelmed local mitigation capacity despite dedicated efforts by local technical professionals.”

Apply that remark to other towns and cities across the region, in the plains and the hills. Everywhere, the danger to growing populations has worsened because of bad construction. There is a criminal nexus that symbolises the growth of corruption and blind “development”, which puts money over lives, despite the fact that good, safe building technology exists. Builders, government leaders, officials and designers criminally choose to go ahead or along with unsafe structures.

Some of this safe building technology is hundreds of years old, indigenous and inexpensive. It even has a local name: the Assam type house or ikora style. Post-Independence, between the 1950s and ’70s, common sense,  allied to a general lack of wealth, prevailed.

In 2009, two housing specialists, Hemant Kaushik and K.S. Ravindra Babu, wrote in the World Housing Encyclopedia about the Assam type house. These houses are made with walls of bamboo or reed mesh (known locally as ikora) and plaster set in a wooden framework. They have a light tin roof and wooden floors that are “highly earthquake resistant”. The buildings are light, flexible and able to move with the swaying caused by tremors, without there being extensive damage or casualties.

In the last 30 years, this style of building has been demolished in urban areas by two factors: cement and quick money (much of the latter came from the Centre, with additional wealth generated by dubious sources and illegal activities). Traditional architecture is also being strongly challenged by new money and visible “permanent structures” in rural areas, constructed as prestige markers by prominent figures.

However, even in the Sikkim earthquake of September 2011, Kaushik and Babu point out, many concrete buildings were devastated but only the third-storey classroom of an ikora school building was damaged. The authors remark that the Assam type house had “very low vulnerability (that is, excellent seismic performance)”. In Shillong, our family house is a bungalow of wood, ikora and plaster. It is beautiful, and, I believe, safe.

Yet, from Gangtok to Shillong, Guwahati to Kohima, Itanagar to Imphal, Aizawl to Agartala, the ring of cement and brick prevails, as does the conviction among governments and corporates that development means “big”. Thus, huge dams have come up on the Teesta in West Bengal, reducing the roaring river of literature and history to a placid, sickly pond.  How safe are these dams in terms of quakes and cloudbursts? Could an independent audit be essayed after the recent disaster in Nepal?

This obsession with “big” extends to other sectors. The other day, while driving from Dimapur to Kohima, I was told of preparations for a four-lane highway, trees being felled, lands being taken over by government, families moving out of homes along the highway. But what is the justification for a four-lane highway that will be crippled by landslides and huge repair costs in an area known for soft soil, land subsidence and rock falls? Or is the attraction of huge profits shared among politicians, officials, contractors and even  armed groups that claim to speak for “the people” just too great? Why not just invest in a high-quality two-lane highway for the hills and leave the four lanes for the plains, where there’s both space and traffic? Use the waterways for cheaper, greater freight movement and passenger traffic with better vessels and the dredging of channels.

The answers to these challenges can be found by learning from the past and unpacking the development paradigm, with which many in government and outside are fixated. The Assam type house needs to be given greater prominence as a symbol of safety and durability. It will have to be complemented with modern technology — for example, since ikora is hardly available, what would it be replaced with? Many new buildings cannot be redone but they can be retrofitted to make them safe during tremors.

After all, when the earth merely shrugs, buildings fall, people die, hills crumble, forests crash, rivers rise.

The writer is director, Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia

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