Watching cockroaches and flies infesting kitchens of many sweet shops in the capital, following the raids last week by the Department of Commerce, most of us are probably off gudpak and pustakari for good.
It wasn't that we didn't doubt the quality of food that these shops or restaurants sold. But in absence of hard evidence, we chose to ignore the health risks because out of sight is out of mind. It is a similar story with the buildings that we live or work in.
Matchbox structures, buildings with unnecessary ornamental columns and cantilever appendages, and alleyways from which you can't even see the sky because of buildings on either side. We've heard the scare stories: given a replay of the 1934 earthquake there will be upwards of 100,000 deaths in Kathmandu Valley alone. Most of them will be buried in the rubble of collapsed buildings. There are over 6 million buildings in the valley.
Why can't there be a repeat of the gudpak raids, but this time inspect how resistant buildings are to earthquakes. After all, both are hazardous to health.
This is a country where people actually bribe officials so they can build unsafe houses for themselves and their families. The first place to start quality control of buildings is at the municipality where the permits are issued. Kathmandu's 1994 building code is one of the best in the region and just ensuring that engineers and construction companies follow these rules can make them quake resistant. There must be a strict quality check of the quality of cement, steel rods and building materials. The construction process itself needs monitoring. People have to realise that if they cut corners, they are not building a house but digging their own graves.
Taking the cue from Department of Commerce, the Department of Housing and Urban Planning or Department of Town Planning could start assessing existing buildings, starting with public structures housing schools, hospitals, malls, cinemas. Other critical infrastructure also needs assessment: roads, bridges, telecommunication towers, water and electricity supply. Government offices should also be checked so that they can function and deploy emergency services and relief during an earthquake.
Buildings that fail the test can be put on a list for demolition or retrofitting. There is a donor consortium for disaster preparedness that is setting aside money for schools and hospitals, the government should do its bit for other infrastructure. Technologies for seismic retrofitting are available in the country and cost Rs 1000 per sq ft. That is not a lot, considering the lives that can be saved. If one cannot afford retrofitting, seismic aspects may be incorporated in the house to minimise the effect of a quake.
We know the government doesn't have its act together. So why wait for a raid to tell you your house is unsafe? Every individual, family or community has to work on its own preparedness. Groups like NSET-Nepal can help in assessment and advice on retrofitting.
Commercial buildings, corporate offices, even hotels, can start tagging themselves as earthquake resistant. The tag will also bring in more business. For example, a tourist is more likely to choose an earthquake resistant hotel to an unsafe one. If one hotel shows commitment to earthquake safety, others will follow suit. This will be a CSR of a greater social and business value than most of their so-called "socially responsible" projects.
Kathmandu is sitting on a seismic bomb that might go off anytime. If 18 September's earthquake was an alarm bell, it is about time we wake up.
Coping the best we can
A shaken nation
If the slow pace of rescue and relief is any indication, rehabilitation of damaged infrastructure in eastern Nepal will take decades
A virtual response to a real disaster in Nepal
Overseas Nepalis simulate an earthquake emergency in Nepal to coordinate global rescue and relief