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Not merely more legal addresses, city needs safe housing

Some coincidences carry a sense of foreboding. A day before the collapse of an illegally constructed building killed 74 persons in Maharashtra’s Thane, Delhi cleared a layout plan to regularise an illegal settlement, writes Shivani Singh.

columns Updated: Apr 08, 2013 02:36 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times

Some coincidences carry a sense of foreboding. A day before the collapse of an illegally constructed building killed 74 persons in Maharashtra’s Thane, Delhi cleared a layout plan to regularise an illegal settlement.

The last time Delhi’s illegal colonies got legal tag was far back in 1977. Thanks to the fresh approval of layout plan, the residents of East Azad Nagar can now get their building plans approved by paying a certain amount in penalty for all violations, carry out new constructions or alterations and sell their properties.

Officials assured that the layouts were prepared in a way that it left space for roads, parks and a school. But unofficially, they admitted that the houses are so tightly packed that one couldn’t provide any public space without bringing down some buildings.

All this while, the biggest concern of structural safety remained unaddressed. Like the Thane building, most constructions in Delhi’s unauthorised colonies are built on weak foundations with extremely poor load-bearing capacity. It is not unusual to see four or five-storey wafer-thin structures come up in a couple of months. It is only when a building starts tilting that it is demolished. Not everyone gets so lucky.

Little wonder then that house collapses kill more people than any other disaster in Delhi. Many would recall the biggest tragedy that killed 71 people in November 2010 when a block of flats in east Delhi’s Lalita Park, an “unauthorised regularised” colony, came down like a pack of cards.

Geologically, Delhi is not the safest of locations. The Vulnerability Atlas of India warned that around 92 per cent of Delhi’s buildings have moderate to high damage risks from an earthquake. Large portions of the densely populated east and southeast Delhi extending up to Noida and Faridabad fall under seismic zone IV. In much of outer Delhi, the foundations are being affected by the high salinity levels of the groundwater.

Nearly one-third of Delhi residents live perilously in illegal settlements. But the rest are not necessarily any safer. According to an estimate, for every legal construction in Delhi, there are two built illegally. These illegal and weak constructions are democratically spread across slums, unauthorised colonies, middle-class neighbourhoods and even upscale gated-communities.

Two years back, a flat owner in South Delhi’s Greater Kailash moved court against a builder who constructed a multi-storey apartment block so shoddily that the structure developed cracks. The builder was arrested.

Across Delhi, most single or two-floor self-constructed houses have now been turned into multi-storey structures by small-time builders. It is common for them to illegally add a balcony, a room or even an entire floor by bribing officials.

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 1.13 million housing units, most residents are just too happy to get a permanent address. Structural safety is not on the top of their mind.

The National Building Code has detailed specifications for all types of constructions and compliance is essential to get a completion certificate for a building. In Delhi, the civic agencies had even made structural safety certification mandatory. But they have only about 50 empanelled engineers to issue them. Anyway, home owners stopped bothering about it since 2011 when the government revoked its order which had banned registration of properties without structural safety certificate.

Clearly, the problem lies in the enforcement mechanism, which is inadequate and corrupt. But instead of trying to make this mechanism more effective and accountable, our authorities are on a regularisation spree.

Too many roofless people can swing elections. But will the consequence of too many roofs collapsing be any different? Yes, there will also be the dead to count.

First Published: Apr 08, 2013 02:34 IST