In early 2013, Anirudh P., a working professional living near Porur, decided to invest in a residential project by Madurai-based Prime Sristi Housing at Moulivakkam. Ironically, the project was titled Trust Heights, with had twin towers called Faith and Belief. The former collapsed in 2014, and the latter was razed last week.
Anirudh is one among 76 buyers who invested his savings to fulfil the dream of owning a home. “I invested Rs. 50 lakh – a combination of my savings and a loan. I am now forced to pay EMIs and I can’t even claim income tax benefits as buyers are entitled to it only after possession. A few buyers are also getting notices from Debt Recovery Tribunals.”
Like most buyers, Anirudh too is awaiting compensation. Only then can he plan on buying a home. After the collapse in 2014, the Moulivakkam Trust Heights Affected Flat Buyers Association was formed to take legal action against the builder. The builder earlier blamed ‘natural causes’ for the incident. The Association, comprising 55 buyers, is fighting for monetary compensation and hopes the government will step in to make the land reusable.
Ratna Mishra, President of the Association, invested in a 2BHK in ‘Faith’. She has also lost her savings and is now forced to pay EMIs for a home that no longer exists. “I invested Rs. 35 lakh from my savings and took a loan for the remaining Rs. 58 lakh,” she says. Despite the State Bank of India conducting a valuation before sanctioning the loan, banks are treating buyers like Mishra as defaulters. “When I moved to Chennai eight years ago from Delhi, I considered it a great city to buy a home in. It was only after completing all background checks on Prime Sristi Housing and ensuring the project had necessary approvals that I went ahead with the booking. I shudder to think of our plight had this happened after we had moved in,” she adds.
The only communication they got from the builder was an email saying buyers would be compensated once legal proceedings are over. “We have been reaching out to him for the last two years, but he now says he has no money. Most buyers had invested their life savings in this. Where do they go?” she asks.
Prime Shristi has been blamed for the use of sub-standard construction materials, violating the National Building Code and deviating from CMDA-approved plans. It is still puzzling how the builders managed to get CMDA approval for the project.
According to the CMDA website, approval was granted to Prime Shristi in June 2013, to construct two blocks with 11 floors each. A. Shankar, National Director, JLL India, says, “It is reported that CMDA sanctioned approval without obtaining the soil test certificate and scrutinising the structural grade and stability.”
Ajit Chordia, President, CREDAI Chennai Chapter, says it’s tough to draw a line between error and negligence. Even if structural plans are submitted to the CMDA, they may not have the expertise to review them. “To prevent such incidents, authorities must ensure the design is not altered and the construction process is reviewed periodically by the architect and civil engineer.”
Senior Advocate Nalini Chidambaram, who is representing the Association, says a case has been filed at the National Consumer Court in New Delhi along with a writ petition at the Madras High Court. “We are seeking compensation for damages of approximately Rs. 30 crore and additional charges for interest and causing mental agony. The date for the final hearing at the Consumer Court has been fixed for July 2017 and we are confident of getting an order against the builder. However, to execute the order, we require an asset to help recover costs, and in this case, it’s the project site that needs to be sold.”
Nalini says the writ petition has been filed against the government as well because of CMDA’s role in granting permission. The structure’s foundation was weak and plans were altered to accommodate a car park. The petition is awaiting the Supreme Court’s verdict on the Meerut fire tragedy case where 65 people lost their lives in a consumer electronics fair. In this case too, the state and authorities were charged for violations and negligence. “Based on the verdict of the Meerut case, the High Court will set a date for our writ petition,” says the lawyer..
The tragedy also highlights the network of illegal developers and fly-by-night operators, and a shortage of qualified architects and civil engineers. Shankar says with the Real Estate Regulatory Act coming in to force, developers will be accountable for rectifying structural defects for a period of five years. The move to allocate 50 per cent of the funds to an escrow account will ensure quality construction.
The importance of construction-related insurance policies – that most developers don’t opt for – couldn’t be stressed more. While most policies don’t cover the effects from design flaws and structural instability, builders can cover their liability through policies such as the Comprehensive All Risk Policy. This policy covers physical damages to a project during construction from external factors such as fire, wind, theft or vandalism of the building or materials during the construction process, and/or of the contractor’s equipment.
The tragedy has come with one silver lining. Buyers have become much more cautious. “All buyers today are insisting on seeing the soil quality report,” says Shankar.