How safe are our rural structures? Lessons from the 2011 Sikkim Earthquake

Increasing frequency and intensity of earthquakes has renewed the urgency in improving the preparedness and in making the infrastructure earthquake-resistant. Sikkim, a northeastern Indian Himalayan state, was hit by a 6.9 magnitude earthquake of intensity VII on 18 September 2011, which triggered hundreds of boulder falls and landslides, causing extensive damage to public and private infrastructure. An assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the various structures present in rural areas was carried out. Assessment of the quantum of damage indicated that though half of the 90,000 rural houses in the state had suffered various degrees of damage, there were only a few deaths due to these houses, highlighting their inherent earthquake-safe character. This earthquake is a wake-up call to enforce building and seismic codes, making building insurance compulsory along with the use of quality material and skilled workmanship. Mass training of masons and orientation of the local community is needed to make earthquake-resistant house construction a standard practice in future.