The Kumars (name changed) in Rabindra Nagar stay on the first floor of a rather old accommodation reserved for government employees. With no access to a garden, the family has converted their terrace into a patch of greens with a mix of seasonal plants and herbs for their kitchen.

This modest vertical garden that grew out of pots and planters could be a potential cause for a leaky roof or worse still a more precarious roof collapse is something that the Kumars had not anticipated.

Recently, after an inspection of the building by the Central Public Works Department – which is responsible for the upkeep of government houses – to ascertain its safety and sturdiness, the Kumars were told to remove the plants as they “endanger” the structural stability of the building.

In a letter to the Kumar family, the CPWD cautioned that the pots and other household items stored on the terrace are adding “dead weight” to the building and contributing to its deterioration. “We were told that the pots can lead to water accumulation and seepage and even lead to heavy damage, like chunks of concrete falling off,” says Ms. Kumar.

Most of the houses that have been allocated to government employees in areas like Rabindra Nagar, Kaka Nagar, Kidwai Nagar, R. K. Puram and Laxmi Bai Nagar are more than four decades old and on account of wear and tear and minimal upkeep have problems like leaky roofs, damp walls and cracks in the concrete among others.

While the structurally unsafe buildings have been identified and work of redevelopment is being undertaken at several places, the CPWD is also asking residents to do their bit in preserving their buildings. But their contention that vertical gardens are threatening the structural stability has upset residents, who find the reasoning irrational.

“The roofs of these houses were made in an era when people slept on them, since there were no air-conditioners and many did not have coolers. How can they suddenly weaken with time? Right next door to us we have tombs that are about 600 years old and standing. Besides, these days people in cities ranging from New York to Kolkata are encouraged to think of urban gardens and home grown food as part of a sustainable lifestyle. Why is the CPWD denying people a patch of their own green?” questions Ms. Kumar.

A senior CPWD official, requesting anonymity, said the Department is flooded with requests from residents complaining of leaks, cracks and other deficiencies and is struggling to keep up with the maintenance work. “There are a number of times when we have undertaken inspection and found that the residents have leaking overhead tanks that they don’t bother to repair, or old and useless furniture and assorted things that can easily be described as trash that is piled on the terraces, on the staircases, all of which adds dead weight to the building.”

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