Unsteady buildings

Frequency of building collapses a big concern. Authorities are trying to fix the mess by introducing newer complications

 
By Avikal Somvanshi
Last Updated: Tuesday 25 August 2015

Frequency of building collapses a big concern. Authorities are trying to fix the mess by introducing newer complications

74 people died in a building collapse at Lucky Compound in Mumbai Metropolitan Region (Photo: Akshay Deshmane)

I recently visited one of the quirky eateries of Delhi’s elitist shopping destination, Khan Market. The only absurdity which annoyed me was the ceiling of the restaurant. Oddly framed in whitewashed beams was a dilapidated slab, with its rusted steel reinforcement staring naked at my horrified face. It was too life-like (or life-threatening) a sight to give credit to some Dadaism-inspired interior designer. I went around enquiring about the origins of this art work; I was informed that it is a tasteful framing of the aged structure of the building.

This made me wonder if the owners of the hotel building at Secunderabad which caved in on July 8, snuffing out 18 human lives, also regarded the antiquity of their 80-year-old hotel structure as tasteful. Or similarly the owners of the five-storey 100-year-old building at Chandni Chowk which collapsed on August 4.

Tragic precedents

The counter has not quite stopped ringing after the unfortunate downfall of the under-construction tower at Lucky compound in Thane on April 4. In the past two months, 79 individuals have died in 14 building collapses that have been reported in national media. The frequency of collapses has turned disturbing with the progress of monsoon season; at least one report every week (see box). Three of them have claimed lives in double digits. The National Crime Records Bureau, Union Ministry of Home Affairs, recorded 1,299 fatalities due to building collapses in the year 2012. This translates to almost one death every 6 hours – 15 times more frequent than fatalities caused by bomb explosions.

Building collapses that grabbed headlines in the past two months

Date

City

Killed

Injured

June 10

Mumbai

10

NA

June 19

Godhra

2

1

June 21

Thane

10

14

June 26

Patna

-

-

July 4

Bhiwandi

3

38

July 6

Delhi

1

16

July 8

Secunderabad

18

NA

July 14

Thane

1

2

July 20

Gwalior

5

NA

July 23

Hyderabad

6

2

July 26

Ahmedabad

-

3

July 26

Bhopal

1

1

August 4

Delhi

-

-

August 5

Bangalore

3

7



Building collapses rarely have zero casualties in India. One such rare event was reported in Patna, but it is the reason for its collapse that tickled my grey cells. Reports claimed that a sound building collapsed and multiple others in the neighbourhood developed deep cracks due to the ongoing construction of a new mall in the vicinity. Deep excavation activity for the construction of the mall was blamed for weakening of the soil structure of the region, which was compounded by rains, causing sinking of foundations of buildings in the vicinity of mall. Residents blamed the Patna Municipal Corporation (PMC) for compromising the safety of the neighbourhood by permitting such dubious construction. These are serious allegations against PMC, hinting at the lack of basic understanding of how buildings can affect and jeopardize the safety of an entire neighbourhood. PMC was quick to wash its hands of the incident by conveniently blaming heavy rainfall.

Across the country, the blame for building collapses is being increasingly put on monsoon downpours. Lay-people, too, seem to be buying the (il)logic, never quite disassociating the timing from the cause of the tragedy. Let me make it clear – buildings are designed and constructed to withstand all kinds of climatic excesses. Building collapses are not normal in the monsoon; in fact buildings should never collapse because of annual monsoon rainfall. Even in the case of extreme events, such as the flash floods of Uttarakhand, a building collapse is not an expected happening.
Are structural audits the answer?

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This monsoon, the cities of Delhi, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Patna, Ahmedabad and other smaller cities have registered their fair share of collapses, but the majority of mega collapses have been concentrated in the Mumbai metropolitan region. Maharashtra, reeling from the excessive media interest because of the recent series of collapses, is talking tough yet again. On July 26, Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan said in the state Legislative Assembly, “If a building collapses within 30 years of its structural audit, the agency or person who undertook the audit will be held responsible for the mishap. The erring audit agency or person will be black-listed and criminal proceedings will be started against them.” Chavan further announced, “64 officials have been designated in BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) and three new police stations will be set up to curb the menace of illegal construction.”

Structural audits of buildings older than 15 years were approved by the Maharashtra legislature in 2007 after the collapse of a Borivali building that killed 30 people. It seems this may get implemented now; but to what end? Structural auditors will continue to face scepticism from the local community in Mumbai, the same they have been facing since 2007. Local communities see these audits as a way to open and grab more land for policies of redevelopment being promoted vociferously by developers and the government. Recent announcements on structural audits by Maharashtra government seem to offer no assurances against just scepticism. The need of the hour is to fix the existing system and enforce existing standards.

Fix things first

Chavan’s grand announcements (though reassuring) sound like the addition of another layer of complications to an already mind-numbingly convoluted building regulation and monitoring system. Illegal extensions, haphazard renovations, neglected old buildings, inferior quality building material or abnormal construction speed which does not allow proper strengthening of structural skeleton may be because of greed and the building mafia. But the collapse of a building, even after it has been reinforced according to the weighty safety standards and regulatory framework of the country, is symptomatic of a regulatory failure more than anything else. State and city governments should try to fix the building permit mess and ensure the honest implementation of existing standards and bye-laws; the rest will take care of itself.

But this is more easily said than done. One major problem which makes streamlining of building construction tricky is the black money floating in the real estate market. Tackling this problem and legally establishing accountability of various stakeholders can achieve the much-needed transparency in the sector. The proposed Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Bill holds promise in this regard. The confidential draft of the Bill has been approved by the Union Cabinet and the government press release paints a rosy picture. But as always, the devil is in the fine details and as long as the complete draft of the Bill is not made public, it is not possible to predict its effectiveness.

Let’s hope that the political will to push for public good and safety will insulate itself from the nasty influence of the building lobby. That already existent checks for safety are effectively implemented instead of introduction of new complications. And that dilapidated buildings are soundly built and retrofitted for safety instead of being tastefully framed.
 

 

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