Who is accountable when a building collapses?

Dust and despair: NDRF and fire brigade personnel work through the rubble of the 117-year-old Husseini Building in Bhendi Bazar on Thursday.

Dust and despair: NDRF and fire brigade personnel work through the rubble of the 117-year-old Husseini Building in Bhendi Bazar on Thursday.

Mumbai: Before the dust from Thursday’s building collapse at Bhendi Bazaar had settled, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) quickly tried to absolve itself of blame, saying that Husseini building was constructed by the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA). MHADA in turn held the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust (SBUT) responsible. In response, an SBUT spokesperson said, “In 2011, MHADA had issued notices of buildings that are dilapidated. Post that, SBUT had offered transit accommodation, and 50% of [the occupants] had shifted but the rest were reluctant to shift and said they will have a look later. We don’t want to blame anyone but we tried our level best to convince them.”

So, who is responsible and accountable when a building collapses?

Under Section 353B of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation (MMC) Act 1888, it is obligatory for every owner and occupier of buildings more than 30 years old to have them inspected every ten years by qualified structural engineers registered with the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai. It is based on audits from these independent professionals that the BMC decides whether a building is dangerous to live in or not.

But these engineers are not government employees and are not accountable for their actions. And since the onus is on the owners and occupants, it is easy for the BMC to wash its hands off the matter if they do not comply. “The ones responsible are structural engineers and the chain can go right upto the Commissioner,” said advocate Rizwan Merchant, who was a victim of a building collapse in Mahim.

There are very few cases where BMC officials have had any kind of complaints registered against them. In the very few cases where they have been blamed, they have gone scot free, because, as public servants, under Section 197 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, sanctions are required to prosecute them. Mr. Merchant says, “This section has been widely misused.”

Johny Joseph, a former Maharashtra chief secretary who also headed the BMC, says, “Engineers have to inspect the building under the Mumbai Regional Town Planning Act (MRTP) and restore and repair according to what is needed. If it is not done, they can be prosecuted under the MRTP Act. The negligence angle has to come from the higher authorities.” He explained that the BMC undertakes a drive before each monsoon, doing technical surveys to find out whether buildings are dangerous or not.. “If a building was declared dangerous and action has not been taken, then it attracts criminal liability.” Within the BMC, their is a clear hierarchy.

Each of its 24 ward offices is responsible for inspecting buildings declared dilapidated by the registered structural engineers, irrespective of who has constructed them. The BMC charter says that the Assistant Commissioner in charge of each ward is responsible for the inspection, considering he is a field officer. Below the AC, each ward has an Executive Engineer responsible for inspecting dilapidated buildings, whether owned by a government body or a private entity. The EE is entrusted with deciding on appropriate action, for instance adding supports, or even evacuating the building, and maintaining records of this. Below the executive engineer, there is an Assistant Engineer (Building & Factory), below the AE is a Sub-engineer (Building), who is turn is assisted by a Junior Engineer (Building), and at the bottom of the pecking order, a Building Mukadam.

But despite this, the problem is affixing blame. Senior lawyer Amit Desai quotes the collapse of Altaf Mansion in Mahim in 2013: In that case, there was a combination of factors that could have caused or contributed to the collapse: occupants of the basement had made illegal alterations, they had not obtained the necessary approvals, and complaints from tenants about the state of the building were not responded to. “Therefore, section 304 II of the IPC — culpable homicide not amounting to murder — was applied.” In another case the same year, when a building collapsed in Mazgaon, the presiding magistrate even brought in the Municipal Commissioner, but the case was quashed by the High Court, because there was no material evidence. “Unless you can link it to the action of these officers. The collapses take place because, either the plans were faulty and yet they were approved or complaints are not adhered to, or the building is dilapidated but people haven’t shifted. Those kind of things are not directly covered under the IPC but you have to extend them to get the facts. ”

Mr. Desai says that the issue is that neither the IPC or MMC Act have an offence called ‘building collapse,’ and the only remedy for that is legislation that outlines the various possible scenarios at every stage of passing the plan or report, so that a person at particular stage can be deemed guilty if he or she has not exercised due diligence. Unless that is done, he says, “It is the causes of the collapse that gives rise to the liability. So if the cause of the collapse has nothing to do with the BMC, then they can’t be held liable.”

The way forward, he suggests, is “Amend the MMC Act and create this as a substantive offence, with proper guidelines and strength and let them approve it.”

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Printable version | May 15, 2022 4:30:48 pm |