R.P. Tewari
Department of Geology, Pachhunga University College, North-Eastern Hill University
Aizawl 796 001, Mizoram

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Natural disasters like earthquake, landslide, flood, drought, cyclone, forest fire, volcanic eruption, epidemic and major accidents are quite common in different parts of the globe. These lead to the loss of life, property damage and socio-economic disruption. Such losses have grown over the years due to increase in population and physical resources. It is believed that the natural disasters have claimed more than 2.8 million lives during the past two decades only and have adversely affected 820 million people with a financial loss of about 25-100 million dollars. These losses are not evenly distributed and are more prevalent in the developing countries due to higher population concentration and low level of economic growth. United Nations in 1987 realized the need of reducing these losses due to natural disasters and proclaimed, by its resolution no. 42/169, the current decade (1991-2000) as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (INDNDR). The main objective of this proclamation was to reduce, through concerted international efforts, the loss of life, property damage and socio-economic disruption caused by the natural disasters particularly in the developing countries.

Earthquakes are one of the worst among the natural disasters. About 1 lakh earthquakes of magnitude more than three hit the earth every year. According to a conservative estimate more than 15 million human lives have been lost and damage worth hundred billions of dollars has been inflicted in the recorded history due to these. Some of the catastrophic earthquakes of the world are Tangshan of China (1976, Ma=7.8, casualty > 3 lakhs), Mexico city (1985, casualty > 10,000) and North-West Turkey (August 17, 1999, Ma=7.4, casualty > 20,000). In India, casualty wise, the first three events are Kangra (>20,000), Bihar-Nepal (>10,653) and Killari (>10,000). Moreover, Indian-Subcontinent, particularly the northeastern region, is one of the most earthquakes-prone regions of the world.

Like any other natural disaster, it is not possible to prevent earthquakes from occurring. The disastrous effects of these, however, can be minimised considerably through scientific understanding of their nature, causes, frequency, magnitude and areas of influence. The key word in this context is "Mitigation and Preparedness". Earthquake disaster mitigation and preparedness strategies are the need of the hour to fight and reduce its miseries to mankind. Comprehensive mitigation and preparedness planning includes avoiding hazard for instance, by providing warning to enable evacuation preceding the hazard, determining the location and nature of the earthquake hazard, identifying the population and structures vulnerable for hazards and adopting strategies to combat the menace of these. In the light of the above, the author discusses the earthquake hazards in India with special reference to the northeastern region along with the mitigation strategies.

Seismic zonation map shows that India is highly vulnerable for earthquake hazards. India has witnessed more than 650 earthquakes of Magnitude >5 during the last hundred years and earthquake disaster is increasing alarmingly here. In addition to very active northern and northeastern seismicity, the recent events in Killari (Maharastra) and Jabalpur (Madhya Pradesh) in the Peninsular India have raised many problems to seismologists.

The occurrence of earthquakes can be explained with the concept of "Plate Tectonics" Based on this three broad categories of earthquakes can be recognised. 1) those occurring at the subduction/collision zones (Inter-plates), 2) those at mid-oceanic ridges and 3) those at intra-plates (Acharrya, 1999). Seismic events in India mainly belong to the first category though a few third category events are also known. Earthquake events are reported from the Himalayan mountain range including Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Indo-Gangetic plain and Peninsular region of India.

Subduction/collision earthquakes in India occur in the Himalayan Frontal Arc (HFA). This arc is about 2500km long and extends from Kashmir in the west to Assam in the east. In constitutes the central part of the Alpine seismic belt and is one of the most seismically active regions in the world. The Indian plate came into existence after initial rifting of the southern Gondwanaland in late Triassic period and subsequent drifting in mid-Jurassic to late Cretaceous time. The force responsible for this drifting came from the spreading of the Arabian sea on either side of the Carisberg ridge (Fig. 1; Chatterjee). It eventually collided with the Eurasian plate in Middle Eocene after NNE drifting along counter clockwise path. The NNE ward movement of the Indian plate caused continental collision with the rates of convergence varying from 44 - 66mm per year. This led to the creation of Himalayan mountain range. The present day seismicity of this is due to continued collision between the Indian and the Eurasian plates. The important earthquakes that have visited HFA are tabulated below:
Place Year Magnitude Casualty
Kangra Valley April 4, 1905 8.6 >20,000
Bihar-Nepal border January 1, 1934 8.4 >10,653
Quetta May 30, 1935 7.6 About 30,000
North Bihar 1988 6.5 1000 Approx.
Uttar Kashi October 20, 1991 6.6 >2,000
Chamoli March 29, 1999 6.8 >150
Hindukush November 11, 1999 6.2 no death reported

This seismic hazard status of Peninsular India, which was once considered as a stable region, has increased due to the occurrence of damaging earthquakes (Pande, 1999). The recurrence intervals of these are, however, larger than those of the HFA and their magnitude is also lesser. These belong to intra-plate category of earthquakes. The following are the important events that have rocked the Peninsular India.
Place Year Magnitude Casualty
Kutch June 16, 1819 8.5 No record
Jabalpur June 2, 1927 6.5 ------
Indore March 14, 1938 6.3 ------
Bhadrachalam April 14, 1969 6.0 ------
Koyna December 10, 1967 6.7 >200
Killari (Latur) September 30, 1993 6.3 >10,000
Jabalpur May 22, 1997 6.0 >55

Koyna event is a classic example of earthquake activity triggered by reservoir. Seismicity at Koyna has close correlation with the filling cycles of the Koyna reservoir. The most puzzling event in the Peninsular India is, however, the Killari earthquake, which occurred in the typical rural setting. This event was least expected from the tectonic consideration, as it is located in the Deccan Trap covered stable Indian shield. There is no record of any historical earthquake in this region. This has been considered as the most devastating SCR (Stable Continental Region) event in the world. Jabalpur event, which occurred in the urban centre, though moderate, is an important one because it is the first major earthquake in India to be recorded by the newly established broadband digital station in the shield region. Moreover, its spatial association with the Narmada Son lineament has triggered a lot of interest from the seismotectonic point of view (DST, 1999).

Northeastern region of India lies at the junction of the Himalayan arc to the north and the Burmese arc to the east and is one of the six most seismically active regions of the world. The other five regions are Mexico, Japan, Taiwan, Turkey and California. Eighteen large earthquakes with magnitude >7 occurred in this region during the last hundred years (Kayal, 1998). High seismic activity in the northeastern region may be attributed to the collision tectonics in the north (Himalayan arc) and subduction tectonics in the east (Burmese arc). The Syntaxis Zone (The Mishmi Hills Block) is the meeting place of the Himalayan and Burmese arcs and is another tectonic domain in the region. The Main Central Thrust (MCT) and the Main Boundary Thrust (MBT) are the two major crystal discontinuities in the Himalayan arc of the Northeastern region. In the Burmese arc, the structural trend of the Indo-Myanmar Ranges (IMR) swing from the NE-SW in the Naga Hills to N-S along the Arakan Yoma and Chin Hills. Naga Thrust is the prominent discontinuity in the north. It connects the Tapu Thrust to the south and Dauki Fault to the east. This fold belt appears to be continuous with the Andaman-Nicobar ridge to the south. The Mishmi Thrust and the Lohit Thrust are the major discontinuities identified in the Syntaxis Zone (Kayal, 1988; Fig. 2). The following is the list of important earthquake events in this region:
Place Year Magnitude Remark
Cachar March 21, 1869 7.8 Numerous earth fissures and sand craters.
Shillong Plateau Jun 12, 1897 8.7 About 1542 people died.
Sibsagar August 31, 1906 7.0 Property damage.
Myanmar December 12, 1908 7.5 Property damage.
Srimangal July 8, 1918 7.6 4500 sq km area suffered damage.
SW Assam September 9, 1923 7.1 Property damage.
Dhubri July 2, 1930 7.1 Railway lines, culverts and bridges cracked.
Assam January 27, 1931 7.6 Destruction of Property.
N-E Assam October 23, 1943 7.2 Destruction of Property.
Upper Assam July 29, 1949 7.6 Severe damage.
Upper Assam August 15, 1950 8.7 About 1520 people died. One of the largest know quake in the history.
Indo-Myanmar border August 6, 1988 7.5 No casualty reported.

The June 12, 1897 earthquake of the Shillong Plateau is one of the greatest event of the world. Casualty was only 1,542 compared to the magnitude of the event (8.7). This is so because event occurred at 5.15 p.m when most of the people were outdoor. Damage to the property was, however, severe. All concrete structures within an area of 30,000 square miles were practically destroyed. There was evidence of two surface faults, namely, Chidrang and Dudhnoi. It is the first instrumentally recorded event in the country. Another event of matching magnitude occurred on August 15, 1950 in the Syntaxis Zone. It caused 1520 death but was more damaging than the 1897 event. Railway line and roads were considerably damaged, landslide triggered in many places and fissures and sand vents occurred. The last major event (Ma=7.5) in the region occurred on August 6, 1988 with its epicentre in the Myanmar side of the IMR. This rocked the whole northeastern region. The tremor lasted for about two minutes killing four human lives and damaging buildings, railway tracts and roads.

Are earthquakes becoming more frequent than before! Seismologists seem not believe that there is upheaval in the occurrence of earthquakes. Gupta (1999) says that annually on an average about 18 earthquakes of magnitude, which hit Turkey, (Ma=7.4), Greece (Ma=7.2) and Taiwan (Ma=7.6) recently occur all over the world. However, these oftenly occur in uninhabited areas or virtually uninhabited areas. Unfortunately, these have now hit thickly populated areas and killed thousands of people. This does not mean that the earthquake frequency has increased. Increase in the loss of life and property damage is not due to increase in number and strength of earthquake frequency but for the rapidly increasing vulnerability of human civilization to these hazards. This can be understood by the fact that Kangra event of 1905 (Ma=8.6) and Bihar-Napal of 1934 (Ma=8.4) killed respectively about 20,000 and 10,653 people whereas 1897 and 1950 events of the northeast (Ma=8.7 each) could kill only about 1542 and 1520 people. This is because Kangra and Bihar-Nepal events struck densely populated areas of Indo-Gangetic plain whereas the northeastern region was sparsely populated in 1897 and 1950. Population concentration and physical resources have increased many times in this region since the last great event. Therefore, if the earthquake of matching magnitude visits the region now, the devastation would be enormous. Timing of the event and epicenter also matters a lot. For instance, Killari event occurred at 3:00 hrs early in the winter morning when people were sleeping and hence the casualty was high (>10,000). Similarly, Turkey event (August 17, 1999, Ma=7.4) also occurred 3.00 hrs in the morning when most people were asleep killing >20,000 of them. Jabalpur event, on the other hand, occurred 4.00 hrs in the morning on summer day when most of the people were outdoor. That is why though the epicenter was near the town, the casualty was less (about 57) and property damage was also not severe.

Research on earthquake prediction started since early sixties. Intensive work is going on all over the world in this regard involving expenditure of billions of dollars. The precise prediction of seismic events remains elusive and unattainable goal as yet in spite of these efforts. According to R.R. Kelkar, Director General of Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), "Earthquake cannot be predicted by anyone, anywhere, in any country. This is a scientific truth". But seismologists continue their efforts in the hope of a major breakthrough in prediction technology in the near future. The seismologists are, however, in a position to indicate the possibility of recurrence of earthquakes in potentially large areas based on palaeoseismicity, micro seismic activities and precursors.

It has been found that earthquakes are generally, but not necessarily, preceded by some signals like ground tilting, foreshocks, change in ground water levels, variations in the discharge of springs, anomalous oil flow from the producing wells, enhance emanations of radon and unusual animal behaviour. Perhaps the first successful prediction of earthquake in the world was made by the Chinese. They predicted Haicheng event of Lioning Province (February 4, 1975, Ma=7.3) on the basis of micro seismic activity, ground tilting and unusual animal behaviour (Nandi, 1999). They also foretold 4 out of 5 events of magnitude 7 during 1976-77. It is believed that the Chinese have mastered themselves in the art of closely monitoring and analysing animal behaviour to forecast earthquakes. Still they failed to predict Tangshan event of 1976 (Ma=7.8, casualty > 3 lakhs).

In India also efforts are going on for predicting earthquakes based on the statistical analysis of past events and their recurrence intervals, swarms activity and seismic gap. However, meaningful prediction is still alluding the seismologists. Khatri (1999) identified three seismic gaps in the Himalayan region, namely, the Kashmir gap, the Central gap and the Assam gap. The Kashmir gap lies west of Kangra event, the Central gap between Kangra and Bihar-Nepal events and the Assam gap between the two great earthquakes of Assam. He further said that the great event may occur in these gaps in near future. Das and Sarmah (1996) forecasted the occurrence of high magnitude earthquake in the western part of the northeastern region at any time within next few years. Negi (in Ahmad, 1998) has predicted "Mega Earthquake" in the northeast by 2010 on the basis of theory of cyclical earthquakes. Sarmah (1999) calculated an average return period of 55 years for the earthquakes of magnitude 8 or greater. The last big earthquake of magnitude 8.7 occurred in 1950. Therefore, northeastern region is ready for an earthquake of similar magnitude. It is bare fact that the strain is accumulating in some parts of the region and any delay in the occurrence of earthquake will increase its magnitude and thus the devastation only.

The importance of seismological studies lies in the fact that information generated can be used to mitigate the earthquake hazards. Preparation of seismotectonic/seismic zonation maps is the first step in this direction. The basic data required for the preparation of these maps are (i) A carefully compiled earthquake catalogue incorporating details about magnitude, location of epicenter, depth of focus etc., (ii) Delineation of seismic source zones from all possible sources like recurrence relation, tectono-geological consideration, palaeoseismicity etc., (iii) Estimation of upper bound magnitude through statistical procedure, cumulative seismic energy release, active fault length etc. and (iv) Attenuation of ground shaking for better results (Das Gupta, 1999). Seismic microzonation is recommended for better result. These maps give an idea about the possibility of occurrence of earthquakes in the region and are very useful for evaluating the risk involved before designing and constructing the heavy engineering structures like dam, bridges, flyovers and large towers etc. These are also useful for planning human settlements that would remain safe during the occurrence of an earthquake. Seismic risk evaluation is also possible from these maps.

Indian Meteorological Department, National Geophysical Research Institute, Department of Science & Technology, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and Regional Research Laboratory have established a large number of seismic monitoring network in the country including northeastern region. These stations are recording useful seismic data, which enables to determine the location of epicenter, useful seismic data which enables to determine the location of epicenter, depth of hypocenter, energy within the focus, orientation of the geological structure that has undergone deformation and many other parameters of earthquakes. These parameters are then utilised for preparing seismo-tectonic and seismic zoning maps. The work in seismic zoning in India was started by Indian Standard Institute (now Bureau of Indian Standard) in the year 1960 and the first map was included in the code IS: 1893-1962. A significant progress has been made since then both in seismic zoning and instrumental monitoring of seismicity. However, many questions regarding the location and nature of potential seismic zones/faults still remain unsolved and need to be addressed to in the new millennium.

It is necessary to design and construct earthquake resistant dwellings in the seismic prone zones. The principles of a seismic design should be kept in mind in this regard. The important earthquake resistant features which are recommended in the latest BIS codes (IS 13828:1993) should be followed (Bhagwan and Sreenath, 1996). Normally houses are built to withstand vertical load only and as a result they collapse when subjected to horizontal stresses produced by earthquake waves. The main requirements for preventing the collapse are a lateral load carrying system of enough residual capacity to safely resist lateral forces, a monolithic roof with sufficient in-place rigidity and a strong and durable vertical load carrying system (Shukla, 1998). It is said that the buildings made after 1981 basically had no damage due to Kobe event of 1995 in Japan because these fulfilled earthquake standards of construction (Struck, 1999). Besides, good quality construction materials should be used. The importance of quality material may be realised from the fact that almost all the individual houses in Jabalpur town withstood earthquake shaking, many government and private apartments built by contractors were badly damaged. It may be due to the reason that the contractors used substandard materials.

As northeastern region is highly seismic and experienced two great events of 1897 and 1950, the people here learnt to construct flexible and sufficiently earthquake proof houses popularly known as "Assam Type" (Nandi, 1999). The scenario has changed now and these houses have paved the way for multistory masonry buildings particularly in the capital towns of all the seven states of the region. If the present trend of construction and population growth continues, the earthquake of magnitude > 7.5 will bring enormous damage to property and great loss of lives. Therefore, the administrative agencies have to strictly enforce the implementation of proper building codes and appropriate landuse policy in the region.

Awareness campaign need to be launched to educate the people about the disastrous effects of earthquakes and to prepare them to face these in a better way. Prevention and mitigation begins with the information. Moreover, public education and community participation is key to the success of the implementation of reduction and mitigation programmes.

A large number of specialised as well as popular articles have been written about earthquakes in research journals and conference proceedings, which are not available to common man. The newspapers and magazines usually do not show interest in publishing articles about mitigation and hazard reduction, however, they give extensive coverage after earthquake takes place. Information and popular articles should be written in simple language and be made readily available to common man. There has to be a close interaction between the seismologists and the administrators, which would greatly help the execution of seismic mitigation programmes (Bapat, 1996). Earthquake related curricula should be introduced in the school stage of education itself. Audio-visual programmes, preferably in the local languages have to be prepared and made available to the public. Voluntary organisation and college students may be approached to take up the responsibility of awareness campaign.

Figure 1. Major tectonic features of the Indian Ocean showing spreading of Arabian Sea on either side of the Carlsberg Ridge (after Chatterjee)

Himalayan Frontal Arc including northeastern region and Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Indo-Gangetic Plain and even Peninsular India are highly vulnerable for earthquake hazards. Earthquake, like other natural hazards, cannot be prevented from occurring. It seems socially relevant and useful earthquake prediction may not be possible in near future. Moreover, prediction may not be much useful also as building and other physical resources cannot be evacuated (Lalliana, 1997). Therefore, we have to learn to live with this disaster and try to minimise its adverse impact on human civilisation. Earthquake mitigation and preparedness programme is the key word in this context. Such programmes can be evolved through detailed study of the seismo-tectonics and seismic history of the region and by preparing seismic zonation map. Constant monitoring of the seismicity is prerequisite for this purpose.

Intensive campaign has to be launched to educate the people about the earthquakes. Popular articles have to be written preferably in local languages in local dailies and magazines. There has to be strong public opinion and political and administrative will to implement mitigation and preparedness programmes. It has been observed that we think to these only in the wake of a particular event and with the lapse of time, political, official and public interest in the problem diminishes. As a result, a large amount of money is spent on relief and rehabilitation (Bapat, 1996).

Strict enforcement of building codes for construction of masonry structures and even for small housing complex in the earthquake prone zones and strict legislation of landuse may help in fighting and reducing the miseries of earthquake hazard. However, it may never be possible for the mankind to live in "Zero Risk Situation" because even after full implementation of mitigation measures, there may be some unpredictable situation that may cause hazards (Acharrya, 1999). Satisfactory results may be obtained through pre, during and post event measures (Tiwari, 1999).

Figure 2. Tectonic setting of northeast India and surroundings (after Evans, 1964 and Krishnan, 1960).

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This page is part of ENVIS Bulletin - Himalayan Ecology & Development, vol. 8 No. 2, 2000.  In case you have any questions about this page contact Scientist In-Charge- ENVIS at GBPIHED, Kosi-Katarmal, Almroa 263 643, India.