Solan building collapse: Wake-up call to end illegal, unscientific construction

The fragile hilly terrain endures haphazard construction without proper clearance, land evaluation mechanism 

By Rajeev Khanna
Published: Tuesday 16 July 2019

Photo: Flickr/generalisingThe building collapse on Nahan-Kumharhatti Road in Solan district of Himachal Pradesh that killed 14 people has raised questions on the extent of construction in the fragile topography and ecology.

Moreover, on residents’ demand, rural areas outside towns may soon be excluded from the Town and Country Planning (TCP) Act. The government’s move to constitute a cabinet sub-committee to look into the representations for this has been called “regressive” by experts who believe exclusion could prove disastrous.

“One needs to look at things from 1977 when an interim development plan for almost the entire state came into being and was implemented in 1979. For the last 40 years it has not been finalised,” said former Shimla Mayor Sanjay Chauhan.

“This interim plan has seen several changes depending on what suits the government, bureaucrats and builders,” he added.

Bringing peripheral villages out of the Act’s ambit would let politicians, officials and builders have a free run and cause irreparable damage to the ecology, said Chauhan.

Around 90 per cent of buildings, primarily residential, in rural Himachal flouted rules on safe construction, concluded a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report few years ago.

Also, 83 per cent of the sample 300 buildings in Shimla were found to be highly vulnerable to earthquakes, added the report.

The CAG audit also highlighted that although construction in urban areas was regulated by the provisions of the TCP Act, the Municipal Corporation Act and local bodies’ regulations and building by-laws, almost 89 per cent of total houses in rural areas was not regulated by any Act or regulation.

Flawed clearance mechanism

The mountainous state faces two major issues when it comes to development: haphazard and illegal construction on fragile hilly terrain. There is a great lacuna when it comes to getting approval by structural engineers for new constructions.

In Shimla, it is the draughtsman who fulfils the conditions of structural approval laid down by the Municipal Corporation Act, said sources.

In Solan, the local civic body has deputed private engineers to conduct the whole process before handing over no-objection certificates to builders. “But these people hardly visit the site. One can obtain a certificate by paying a mere Rs 500 to Rs 700,” said a builder.

The substratum of the site along with the slope needs to be properly evaluated before the construction is undertaken, said BS Marh, an expert in geomorphology.

The buildings built by the British still stand because their foundations are laid in the solid rock stratum. On the other hand, there is Fingask Estate area in Shimla. “Many structures in the area have collapsed because they had come up on debris,” said Marh.

He has also observed the unscientific manner in which the Kalka-Shimla national highway expansion project is being carried out. “The people who were displaced have resettled in a hurried manner, while all the regulations and requirements have not been fulfilled. It needs to be evaluated whether the new buildings including eating joints that have come up have been built on solid rock foundation or on debris,” he said

Other than structural engineers, geology experts must also be involved in the process to allow new constructions, said environmentalist Kulbhushan Upmanyu.

“We think in extremes. One day there is a norm that only two storeys would be allowed and the next day a seven-storey construction is approved. Same is the case with mining. One day there is a decision to completely ban mining in an area without understanding that it’s not a solution since people have to build houses. There is a need to strike a balance and do things scientifically,” said Upmanyu.

“The land for construction should be categorised according to its geology and let there be 10 different grades if required because at one point a four-storey building can come up and at another even building two storeys is risky. Putting entire districts in a category is useless,” he added.

Future roadmap

For experts, the absolute essentials the state needs to adopt are: evaluation of under stratum before construction, action against government laxity and penalising individuals flouting norms.

 “Absolute planning and fixing accountability are the only ways to keep the state ecologically and environmentally intact. Repeated attempts by various governments to bring retention policies to legalise illegal constructions have been a dampener for law abiding citizens,” said Kul Rakesh Pant, former chairman of Solan Municipal Council.

As Solan wore a desolated look on Monday, people kept on saying “yet another building has collapsed just like the last monsoon season”.

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