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Safety be damned

Delhi, Noida and Gurgaon, all part of the high-risk seismic zone 4, are getting ready to go as high as 80 floors. What is alarming is that the city does not have a tall buildings code for safety of structures

realestate Updated: Feb 05, 2014 18:38 IST
Vandana Ramnani
Vandana Ramnani

India has five tall buildings, the highest being the 117-storey World One project in Mumbai, that have made it to the recently released Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat’s list of 100 tallest buildings under construction in the world 2013. The country has over 100 tall structures that are ready and another 200 are in the pipeline.

What is alarming is that despite the country not having a tall buildings code, both Noida and Gurgaon, which are part of the high-risk seismic zone 4, are building 50-storey-plus structures, and Delhi’s Master Plan 2021 focuses on “vertical development as the only way forward.”

Structural and seismic engineering experts lay great emphasis on the fact that a specialised tall buildings code is the need of the hour. In its absence, most tall projects in the country are being constructed in consultation with international experts who have worked on similar projects abroad. While there’s nothing wrong in following international best practices or codes, nobody can be held accountable if an eventuality like an earthquake were to occur and destroy or damage buildings, say experts.

They also point out that most building codes in the country are almost a decade-old or more and applicable to structures of up to only nine to 10 storeys. There are also no mandatory specialised provisions for wind or earthquake loads that are prerequisites for constructing tall structures. What this means is that in the eventuality of an earthquake in the zone 3 or zone 4 areas, nobody can be held accountable if there is damage to the structures, as these have been built according to the existing code. Developers attempting to build structures above 50 storeys should know that the outcome will be similar to an automobile manufacturer attempting to make aircraft, the experts warn.

Mumbai has tried to make up for the absence of a tall buildings code by setting up a tall buildings committee which reviews the projects. The National Management Disaster Authority (NDMA) had also proposed the setting up of a Delhi Tall Buildings Council to the Delhi government in 2011. That, at best, can only be a stop-gap arrangement. The need of the hour is a tall buildings code, say experts.

Rama Raman, CEO, Noida Authority, agrees. As of now, developers planning to build tall structures are expected to submit no-objection certificates with the authority. These include clearances from the airport authorities and the fire department. “We, too, may consider setting up a council on the lines of the Mumbai tall buildings committee,” Raman adds.

Interestingly, local bylaws do not define tall buildings. Anything above 15 m in height is generally classified as a high-rise. There is confusion over the definition of a high-rise structure and a tall building. Both, a 10-storey building and a structure above 50 -storey, come under the same category. This is a big loophole, say experts, adding that the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Bill, 2013 also does not mention this issue at all.

Most codes in India are 10 to 20 years old. For example, the Bureau of Indian Standards code (BIS) IS 1893 (part 1):2002 lays down the criteria for earthquake resistant design of structures. This is as old as 2002. “Even countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Philippines have their codes updated every three years. Why have we not updated our codes for over a decade? The fact that our codes are not updated is a big drawback,”saysSandeep Donald Shah, managing director, Taylor Design and Engineering Consultants Pvt Ltd & Taylor Devices India Pvt Ltd, a company that manufactures earthquake-absorbing devices such as dampers.

According to Sanjay Prakash, principal consultant at SHiFt: Studio for Habitat Futures, insurance companies are unprofessionally managed in India. What is needed is an ombudsman under the National Disaster Management Authority, which might be able to assure that a building has been designed and constructed as per the proper codes.

The issue of accountability needs to be addressed in a big way. Strangely enough, no engineer in India can be held responsible for damage to structures in any court of law as there is no engineering council such as the council of architecture under which architects across the country are registered. The council keeps a tab on the standards of practice to be complied with by the practising architects. A draft of the engineers bill that proposes setting up a council for engineers has been pending with the MHRD since 2007, says an NDMA source.