Tamil Nadu

Building homes like card stacks

As one takes the road from Ripon Buildings to Pulianthope along Raja Muthiah Road for about 1.5 km, the lofty apartment buildings at the Kesava Pillai (K.P) Park is hard to miss.

They were built as part of a reconstruction project of the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB), which has been renamed the Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board (TNUHDB). A total of 864 families residing at the site for more than three decades in low-rise buildings, constructed earlier by the TNSCB, were vacated in 2018 as the buildings had become dilapidated.

Besides demolishing the old buildings and constructing 864 new units in high-rise buildings, TNUHDB built an additional 1,056 apartment units which are meant for resettling people from informal settlements on the banks of the Cooum. The construction of the 1,920 units was finished in two phases, in 2019 and 2020, at a total cost of ₹250 crore through PST Engineering Construction, a private contractor.

Once touted as a model project, boasting of more space and other amenities, K.P. Park is now mired in a controversy following serious concerns about the quality of construction. At several places, the plastering has crumbled at the slightest pressure. The DMK government has blamed the AIADMK regime for the poor quality of work.

The Centre for Urbanisation, Buildings and Environment (CUBE), an organisation formed in collaboration between the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras and the government of Tamil Nadu, has been engaged to assess the quality of construction.

Based on the preliminary findings, TNUHDB suspended an Assistant Engineer and an Assistant Executive Engineer for failing to efficiently monitor the quality. While there were calls for making the contractor accountable, the company issued a public advertisement claiming that it completed the project without compromising on quality.

Crumble zone: A resident pointing to the poor quality of plastering in the apartment unit allocated to her at the tenements in K.P. Park

Crumble zone: A resident pointing to the poor quality of plastering in the apartment unit allocated to her at the tenements in K.P. Park   | Photo Credit: JOTHI RAMALINGAM B

TNUHDB, the major provider of housing for the weaker sections, is building 99,250 housing units under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana-Housing for All (Urban). Apart from this, demolition and reconstruction of around 25,000 dilapidated units are in the pipeline. With such a vast number of projects under its wing, quality issues at its site at K.P. Park have given a wake-up call to the authorities. However, for thousands of families living in many such houses built by TNUHDB, quality always seemed elusive.

S. Esther, aged around 70, points to the incomplete flooring in her apartment unit on the sixth floor of the 78th block of the TNUHDB tenements at Perumbakkam. Two years ago, she was evicted from Sathiyavani Muthu Nagar in Chennai with her 45-year-old daughter P. Lilly Pushpam, who was partially paralysed after a stroke and suffers from a heart disease. The family was resettled at Perumbakkam.

Ms. Esther, the sole breadwinner of the family, commutes over 25 km every day to Thousand Lights for a housekeeping job that pays her ₹4,000 a month. “I appealed to the officials several times to allocate an apartment at least on the second floor, if not on the first floor, so that it will be easy for me and my ailing daughter, but they did not listen,” she says. With the lift in the building often not functioning, she says both she and her daughter find it difficult to climb six floors. “Once my daughter got stuck alone in the lift for a few hours because of a power cut,” she says.

She says the apartment has a plethora of issues with basic amenities.

“The main door was not hinged properly to the wall. Though I pointed it out in the beginning itself, it was not fixed,” she says. Of the ₹2,000 COVID-19 financial assistance given recently by the State government to all rice ration cardholders, Ms. Esther spent ₹1,000 on fixing the door.

M. Alamelu*, a resident of a nearby building, complains of water seepage on the walls from leaky pipelines and water stagnation on the rooftop. Residents of many other buildings make a similar complaint.

A. Veerappan, retired Chief Engineer of the Public Works Department (PWD), says the poor quality of houses provided at subsidised rates or free of cost to the weaker sections has been a perennial issue. J. Sebastin, coordinator of Slum Clearance Board Residents’ Welfare Committee, a non-governmental organisation, agrees with him. He argues that the problem begins with the government’s patronising attitude — because it is provided to marginalised sections, quality need not be a priority.

Transit shelters

That this argument cannot be ignored is evident from the condition of the transit shelters given to those evicted from K.P. Park. Of the 864 families vacated from K.P. Park for the reconstruction, a significant number who could manage rental housing elsewhere or find alternative arrangements left the site. TNUHDB erected makeshift shelters in-situ with tin sheets to accommodate around 200 families who could not go elsewhere. A visit by The Hindu showed the abject conditions in these shelters. All the families share four toilets that often have no water.

Despite the initial promise that the new houses would be ready in a year, delays in the project and the pandemic meant that the families continued to live in these shelters for about three years. Residents say the place is infested with rats. As there is no flooring, even mild rain renders the floor soggy. “During the monsoon, we suffer a lot with leaky roofs and water stagnation for days,” says K. Vetriselvi, whose eight-member family lives in the shelter. She says her husband has to take their two young daughters to a public toilet located far away if they have to answer nature’s call at odd hours as the toilets at the shelter are often unusable.

She poses a logical question. She points out that apart from the 864 units, TNUHDB constructed an additional 1,056 units in the vacant area that was earlier available to them for common utility.

“First, it was not right to take that land without our consent,” she says. “Secondly, if the plan was to build on the vacant land too, why not build there first, shift us there and then demolish our old buildings,” she asks. “They did not do it because they did not really care and did not want to listen,” she alleges. She stoutly opposes TNUHDB’s demand for ₹1.5 lakh for the allocation of the reconstructed houses. This was not communicated earlier, she says.

G. Selva, secretary of the Chennai Central district unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), says that for a project supposedly executed under Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana-Urban aimed at providing ‘pucca’ houses for all, it is ironic that people who earlier had ‘pucca’ houses were made to live in squalor for three years. “Ideally, the government should pay them compensation instead of asking for money.”

D. Sasikala, 45, another allottee at K.P. Park, says that due to the focus on the quality of construction, many other design issues are being ignored. “For instance, all the units have been fitted with western toilets. None of us have used them in our lives. Moreover, water supply is already problematic for us. We are told that western toilets will need more water,” she says. She says that while the government highlights that the unit size has been increased to nearly 400 square feet, the apartments, as a whole, looks more cramped now. “There is less natural light and less open space,” she says. Each floor has 24 units. The corridors are barely one metre wide.

Mr. Sebastin says quality should be seen holistically, from the point of view of access to livelihood, healthcare and education. “In that sense, building tenements at places like Perumbakkam itself is problematic,” he says.

M. Kavitha*, a resident of Perumbakkam whose family was relocated from the banks of the Cooum five years ago, says that while flooding during monsoons was cited as the reason for their eviction, the same problem continues at Perumbakkam. “Every monsoon, we are inundated because this area is also flood-prone. We go without electricity for many days,” she says.

A report submitted in 2018 by an Advocate-Commissioner appointed by the Madras High Court in a case filed by the non-governmental organisation, Pennurimai Iyakkam, has documented the hardships faced by the people in the tenements at Perumbakkam, Navalur, Kudapakkam, and AIR Nagar, in terms of livelihood, lack of amenities and quality.

A comprehensive study done by Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN) and the Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC) discusses the architectural shortcomings in the tenements, in terms of safety and disaster preparedness, apart from all other issues.

Community involvement

IRCDUC founder Vanessa Peter says one of the fundamental problems was the absolute lack of community engagement. “There is a Community Development Wing at TNUHDB. However, the Engineering Section, which is responsible for the construction, and the Community Development Wing do not seem to work together closely,” she says. She underscores the need for strong operational guidelines that mandate community consultations at the planning, implementation and evaluation stages. “Miniature models of the proposed construction should be displayed at settlements where housing projects are undertaken to get the feedback from people and understand what they need,” she says, adding that it is crucial to ensure that women and children are included in this process.

Mr. Selva says transparency is needed in the execution of the projects. “The details of the contractor, the project cost, the engineers monitoring the project and the procurement of materials must be displayed at the site and made available online,” he says. He also stressed the need to make provisions for public auditing by the beneficiaries, particularly in the case of reconstruction projects. Ms. Peter says monitoring committees, comprising women from the settlements, should be formed.

Besides measures to address various aspects of quality, Mr. Veerappan highlights the need to immediately address key challenges in the Engineering Department. He says one of the long-pending issues was the Schedule of Rates (SoR), a document issued every year by the PWD to fix costs for all types of work. “Our SoR has always been lower than the cost fixed by the Central Public Works Department (CPWD). A contractor can quote only as per our SoR. The contractor has to make a profit and allow room for all other expenses within this cost... This will naturally affect the quality,” he says. He points to the long-pending demand that the PWD be allowed to keep its SoR on a par with the rates of the CPWD.

Pointing out that quality issues raised at K.P. Park so far are primarily related to plastering, he says a common mistake is to pay less importance to curing, a process of wetting the structure to ensure adequate moisture in the freshly laid concrete or plastering for about a week to 14 days to strengthen it. He adds that lack of periodic maintenance work, which will prolong the life of the buildings, is also a key problem.

A senior engineer of TNUHDB points to staff shortage, especially in the engineering section. While around 235 projects are under way, the staff strength is not adequate to monitor the projects, let alone carry out maintenance. Once a project is awarded to a contractor, the field-level engineers are supposed to regularly monitor its implementation. TNUHDB also engages external engineers for inspection. Officials of the rank of Executive Engineers or Superintending Engineers finally sign off on the quality.

The senior engineer says it is often difficult for engineers to act independently to ensure quality owing to the pressure mounted by different stakeholders. He points out that TNUHBD had a similar wake-up call a decade ago when one of its buildings under construction at Amman Kulam in Coimbatore began to sink. It had to be demolished. “However, nothing much has changed since,” he says.

He, however, says TNUHDB has executed several projects of good quality. “For instance, the one at Gowthamapuram in Chennai, which was recently inspected by the Chief Minister, is a well-executed project,” he says.

TNUHDB Managing Director M. Govinda Rao says the government’s recent announcement introducing Third Party Quality Monitoring for all the projects will go a long way in ensuring quality. “We are planning to rope in reputed institutions.”

He acknowledges the need for further strengthening community engagement. Highlighting that a number of such changes will be part of the proposed resettlement policy, he says the intent to address the problem of housing from a holistic perspective is reflected in the change of name from TNSCB to TNUHDB.

Welcoming the change of name, activists say only time will tell whether the change remains just symbolic or translates into social good.

(*The names have been

changed at their request)

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Printable version | Sep 28, 2021 4:59:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/building-homes-like-card-stacks/article36298215.ece

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