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Ayaz Memon, Hindustan Times
Mumbai, April 08, 2013
Life comes sordidly cheap in Mumbai. We often boast that after the underworld was chased out, this city does not have the culture of 'guns and violence' as in some places up north (the recent spiral in crime rate through banditry, murder and suggests such comfort is delusional), but in many respects it is worse.

Much of this percolates down to the prospecting of money in real estate. In Mumbai, land is more precious than gold - certainly more than life - and the interplay between builders and the underworld - which had become endemic in the past - is only too well known.

But no less damaging is how greed-driven builders in connivance with nefarious politicians, bureaucrats, civic authorities, police and private individuals have played more havoc than any health epidemic or the ruthless underworld.

The collapse of a building in Mumbra which left at least 75 dead is a dreadful reminder of the corruption which controls housing in Mumbai - north, south, east or west. The aforementioned building, it was reported, fell like a pack of cards. Considering it was built in less than three months, it could only have been that.

This particular building - ironically named 'Lucky' - was obviously illegal and built with substandard or rejected materials from other construction sites. Yet, the builders could go about their business with impunity - irrespective of the checks and balances that exist on paper.

A local had made several complaints about it but to no effect, which not just shows that corruption was at the core of the tragedy, but of the many layers involved, from private architects and civil engineers to civic and police authorities who made it possible for flats to be sold and occupied.

Sadly, this is not the first time a tragedy like this has happened, so it can't even be argued that the authorities were caught on the blink. Mumbai has a history of such cases - and we are not talking about the dilapidated buildings in the innards of the city which are under threat every monsoon.

Two prominent cases are of Pratibha building in Breach Candy, where floors were in excess of permissions granted, or the more gruesome story of Poonam Chambers in Worli, which came crashing down after repairs. These two cases epitomise different facets of how bureaucracy assists profiteering. Pratibha, built in 1979, was an FSI fraud where developers tried to manipulate figures to go higher. After a court case that ran for more than a decade, eight floors were demolished.

The only gratifying feature of the Pratibha case was that no life was lost. Unlike Pratibha, there was nothing illegal about Poonam Chambers in terms of number of floors, but when it came crashing down in September 1997, 15 people died and several were seriously injured.

That this was a commercial building in a posh business locality with several high-profile tenants (StanChart, Wock-hardt, Nabard etc) caused a furore and made investigations quicker, but with a similar story: investigators found the construction to be inherently deficient, specifically in the columns, making them weak.

The fundamental question which arose with Pratibha and Poonam  - and needs to be raised even more strongly in the Mumbra building case  - is where are the authorities when illegal buildings come up right under their noses?

Accidents can happen, but this callous disregard for human life is nothing short of calculated homicide. Chief minister Prithviraj Chavan has promised stern action, and has moved swiftly against some of those allegedly involved. But perhaps the purge is more needed in the corridors of power in Mantralaya and the BMC, where plans and permissions for buildings are lodged, negotiated and cleared.