Come the monsoon, every year, India grapples with stories of housing collapses, usually old buildings that have outlived their utility. The June 28 building collapse in Chennai that killed more than 60 people is different: It was an under-construction structure that was being built just around 500 metres away from the Porur lake outside the city. However, in the Chennai case as also the other collapses that have taken place in other Indian cities, the causes are more or less the same: Laxity on the part of the civic authorities when it comes to doing their basic work, which is keeping a strict vigil on builders and ensuring only those who meet the norms are given clearances.
What is startling in the Chennai case is that the builder got the clearance to build on wetland. Unfortunately, there is hardly any well-defined norm to check if the quality of a building under construction matches with the approved designs. The Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association has done its own assessment and has called it a structural engineering disaster. The key failures, the organisation said, are the use of weak load-bearing beams and columns, and the use of sub-standard construction material, all of which compromised safety. The Chennai Municipal Development Authority has commenced inspection of high-rise buildings; unfortunately such sudden checks, not regular assessments, are undertaken only when a tragedy happens.
As India urbanises at a rapid clip, there is a huge demand for housing in the already-crowded cities. This demand, coupled with corruption, ensures that old buildings are allowed to house people (often migrant labourers) and new ones are constructed without any quality considerations. Added to these challenges are a few others. Most urban governments lack a modern planning framework, the multiplicity of local bodies obstructs efficient planning and weak finances of urban local bodies and service providers leave them unable to expand the trunk infrastructure that housing developers need to develop new sites, among others. Most urban bodies do not generate the revenues needed to renew infrastructure, nor do they have the creditworthiness to access capital markets for funds, says a World Bank report on urbanisation.
The NDA wants to build 100 smart cities that will have the latest technology and infrastructure. But at the moment what is of key importance is to make our existing ‘unsmart’ cities, the engines of economic growth, smarter by shoring up civic infrastructure and governance.