None accountable for city that can’t trust its roofs

  • Shivani Singh, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: May 17, 2016 17:02 IST

Building collapse is the most frequently occurring disaster in Delhi. But it is not until several lives are lost that authorities sit up and take notice. Enquiries are ordered and the Sarkari blame game follows. The headlines fade and the fatalistic city goes back to business as usual.

It was, indeed, business as usual when a house owner started constructing a building in New Ashok Nagar, a working-class neighbourhood in east Delhi. On May 11, the wall of the building could not withstand a minor dust storm. The structure fell on the adjoining tin-roofed house, crushing five members of the two families living here. Two children had to be hospitalised. Police say they are lucky to have survived.

Vinod, the father of the two children, is an office assistant at Hindustan Times. He had worked hard to build a home, one household item at a time. Today, he has lost all material possessions except the clothes on him. It was like being hit by an earthquake, he says.

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With nearly one-third of Delhi residents living in poorly-constructed illegal settlements like Vinod’s, the national Capital should feel fortunate it has not been hit by a major temblor yet. Delhi falls in the extremely high-risk seismic Zone IV and Turkish geophysicist Ahmet Mete Işıkara’s observation that “quakes don’t kill people, buildings do” sums up the potential danger the city is staring at.

In Delhi, it is not unusual to see four to six storey structures come up in less than two months. Walls are constructed thin to increase the carpet area. Load-bearing beams and pillars are removed to create additional space. In a city that faces a shortage of a million housing units, most are just too happy to get a permanent address. Structural safety is not on the top of their mind.

According to National Disaster Management Authority, more than 1,800 Civil Engineering Codes are in place but enforcement is lacking. There is no registered agency in Delhi which can be held responsible for the condition of building stock, it stated in its 2012 report. It is only when a building starts tilting, it is demolished.

Delhi has too many illegal buildings to even consider the option of forced eviction or mass demolition. But instead of trying to make the enforcement mechanism more effective and accountable for the new buildings, our authorities are on a regularisation spree.

In the run up to 2008 state polls, the Congress government in Delhi distributed provisional regularisation certificates to residents of 1,218 colonies, claiming it kept its 2003 poll promise. Before the 2013 election, it promised to bring these settlements on the city’s civic map. In 2014, the NDA government at the Centre passed an ordinance to regularise these illegal settlements. In its 2015 election manifesto, the AAP promised to provide basic civic facilities as well as property rights.

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The AAP government claimed to have already given water to over 250 unauthorised colonies and reduced charges for sewerage connections. But augmenting infrastructure remains a challenge. There is not enough space even for building a decent road. Check the conditions in the 567 colonies that were made legal in 1977 under the then prime minister Indira Gandhi. Four decades later, they still resemble shanty towns.

But structural safety, the biggest concern, is not even on the political agenda. Little wonder then that house collapses kill more people than any other disaster in Delhi. In 2010, 71 people died when a block in east Delhi’s Lalita Park, an “unauthorised regularised” colony, gave away. In 2012, three including a rickshaw puller on the road were killed because the owner of a building in Gandhi Nagar was adding two floors to the barely stable structure. In 2014, ten people including five children died in Inderlok when their house collapsed because the under-construction building next door had weakened its foundation. Last year, five were killed in a building collapse in Vishnu Garden.

More than half of Delhi residents have no choice but to live in what can any moment turn into their graves. And it has not taken quakes yet to bury people under the rubble. Imagine what is in store if the earth does tremble.

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