Buildings in cities are collapsing with depressing regularity, and precious lives are being lost. Two recent tragic incidents have yet again raised the issues of safety and accountability in building construction. On June 28, on the outskirts of Chennai, an 11-storey building under construction collapsed, and some 61 people died. In Delhi, a four-storied building crumbled and 10 persons including five children lost their lives. In the Chennai incident, the promoter of the apartment project blamed a lightning strike for the tragedy, but State agencies, builders’ organisations and architect groups pointed to poor design, non-compliance with rules and negligence as the reasons. The police arrested six persons including the developer, the architect and the engineer. The Tamil Nadu government has appointed a one-man commission headed by a retired High Court Judge to investigate the incident and suggest measures to prevent such calamities in future. In the case of the Delhi incident, survivors had complained that construction work nearby had weakened the foundation. The Municipal Corporation, the reports indicate, ignored their protests. In a delayed reaction, the Corporation has suspended the engineers in charge until enquiries are completed. Every time such accidents occur, the state rushes forth to form committees and enacts new rules, only to ignore them later. Nothing has improved the situation on the ground, and the lessons have hardly been learnt.
The issue is not that of insufficient regulatory systems or safety standards, but that of non-compliance. For instance, in Chennai, building approval procedures for multi-storied buildings clearly mandate that the regulatory authorities verify soil analysis reports, structural drawings, stability certificates and design drawings before issuing approvals. Had the officials diligently scrutinised the drawings and the data, they could have detected the inadequacies, if any, even before construction commenced. Periodic inspection of buildings would have helped spot deviations and other problems at the construction stage. In Delhi, had the Corporation acted on residents’ complaints and taken prompt action, lives would have been saved. The need of the hour is to review and rigorously implement the existing rules. Frequent regularisation of unauthorised constructions have emboldened violators and eroded the compliance culture. Lack of transparency in approval processes, discretionary exemptions, and slack inspections have put the interests of many apartment-buyers in peril. Construction workers often bear the worst of the effects, and lose lives and limbs. Safety measures at construction sites and compliance with design standards are not matters that are up for negotiation. We need a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to unsafe building practices.