Instead of strengthening enforcement mechanism and making local bodies directly accountable, State governments have repeatedly sought to regularise building violations for a fee

The collapse of an unauthorisedly built high-rise in Thane is yet another reminder that in Indian cities in general, when it comes to compliance with and enforcement of building rules, much remains to be done. As building code violations and state apathy, even connivance, continue, every year more than 2,500 people die across India in building collapses caused by structural flaws. And some 20,000 people die in fire accidents.

The depressing truth is that most of these tragedies are preventable.

Last year in Jalandhar, a factory building crumbled, killing about 10 people. More than 90 lives were lost when the building housing Advanced Medicare and Research Institute Hospitals in Kolkata caught fire. These are but two instances.

Local building rules and the National Building Code set down in detail the structural requirements needed to ensure stability. The quality standards of materials are prescribed to secure durability. There is a requirement that sufficient open space be left around buildings to facilitate rescue operations. A mandatory number of exits are to be provided to enable safe movement during an emergency.

Legislative measures empower town planning authorities to check buildings during construction and issue ‘stop work’ notices when they spot violations. They can issue demolition or lock-and-seal notices, and go further if the owners refuse to correct the violations.

However, most of the rules are followed only in the breach. The States’ enforcement mechanism has by and large failed to monitor construction activity. In a count made a few years ago, Hyderabad accounted more than 2.5 lakh building violations and Chennai had its share of 3 lakh violations. When the government randomly inspected 250 buildings recently in four City Corporation limits in Kerala, 197 of them were found to be illegal. The same is the case in other cities.

A survey of 35 multi-storeyed buildings in T. Nagar, a busy commercial hub in Chennai, conducted by the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority a few years ago showed that almost all the buildings violated building and safety rules. In many cases the extent of violation exceeded 600 per cent. More floors had been added, there was hardly any open space around, and many buildings did not have fire safety compliance.

Indifference and at times connivance by officials in the local bodies and development authorities are equally important reasons for this state of affairs. It is surprising that a seven-storeyed building could come up in Thane without anyone checking or stopping it.

Instead of strengthening the enforcement mechanism and making local bodies directly accountable, State governments have repeatedly sought to regularise building violations for a fee. Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka have amended their Town Planning Acts to regularise violations. The Pimpri Chinchwad Municipal Corporation has accommodated illegal constructions and the Central government recently announced that it would condone unauthorised religious structures that have come up in Delhi.

On many occasions the courts have come down heavily on such irresponsible use of powers, but this has hardly changed the ground condition. In 1998, when the Tamil Nadu government introduced such regularisation on a large scale, the Supreme Court permitted it, but only as a ‘one-time measure.’ The court emphasised that the government should check violations at the beginning stage itself. Though the State gave an assurance that it would do so, it has extended the regularisation schemes in 2000, 2001, and 2002 and yet again in 2012. Such a pattern of actions have grossly undermined whatever has been made to improve the situation — and emboldened violators.

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