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Unused Quake Sensors

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  2 May 2015 12:00 AM GMT

Between 2005 and 2008, the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee had established a network of 293 ground motion sensors located across northern, eastern and the north-eastern India to monitor ground acceleration during earthquakes, under a project funded by the Union Science and Technology Ministry. These highly sensitive box-shaped sensors called accelerometers are not seismographs, but rather designed to record the ground shaking at each site during earthquakes and thereby to serve a purpose different from seismographs. According to Professor T.G.Raghuth of the Civil Engineering department of IIT, Madras, “The accelerometers can tell us how exactly the ground moved at each site during those seconds of the quake when the ground shook.” Unfortutely, the typical callous bureaucratic approach to all such scientific initiatives also overtook the network of 293 accelerometers that had been so painstakingly installed by the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee. All of a sudden, the Earth Sciences Ministry stopped funding the project in September 2014 and informed IIT Roorkee in February this year to prepare to hand over the sensors to the tiol Centre for Seismology (NCS), an institution under the Ministry. Such an arbitrary and short-sighted step overlooked the fact that these sensitive instruments needed frequent maintence and periodic changes of batteries in order to remain fully functiol. Ram Iyengar, an earthquake engineering specialist formerly with the Indian Institute of Sciences, Bangalore, said, “During this government takeover, someone perhaps forgot that the sensors need maintence... Academic users have been waiting to receive ground motion data during a big quake.” According to experts, the ground motion readings are critical to understand how an earthquake might affect buildings and other structures in cities. Such studies are obviously very important in planning engineering strategies to reduce the risk of damage from the ground motions that accompany earthquakes. In March this year, a faculty member of IIT Roorkee, who was the principal investigator in charge of the ground motion network, wrote to the Ministry, cautioning that the network had not been maintained for the past six months and that several accelerometers might not be operatiol. “Our country will cut a very sorry face if a big earthquake event occurs, as in the present stage of the instrumentation, we may not get any strong motion records,” said Ashok Kumar, Professor of Earthquake Engineering at IIT Roorkee.

There is no doubt that the country has already lost face on account of the arbitrary decision of the Union Science and Technology Ministry. Researchers in academic institutions across the country, who had been using the network from 2008 to 2014 have flooded IIT Roorkee with requests for data from the instruments since last Saturday’s earthquake with a magnitude of 7.9 on the Richter scale and its after-shocks. But IIT Roorkee itself has had no access to data because when the funds dried up, BSNL spped the lines supporting links to the sensors. Magers of the network at IIT Roorkee, therefore, had to send an email on Monday evening to dozens of the network’s users in academic institutions informing them of the unfortute situation. The Ministry’s arbitrary action in suspending a vital scientific project and getting the network of sensors handed over to the NCS has deprived the country of very vital information on earth movements at different parts of the country after a major earthquake—information that would have been of immense help to planners, architects and engineers in planning and constructing buildings and structures in earthquake-prone regions. What face can our administrators show to those seeking this information in order to reduce the hazards of future earthquakes by ensuring safer construction of buildings? The belated efforts of the government to retrieve whatever data it can from the sensors is both pathetic and risible.

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