Redevelopment of buildingsOn 22 April 2015, Delhi witnessed yet another building collapse in Moti Nagar in West Delhi that left a five-year old boy along with two others dead and nine injured. The sad irony is that this is neither the first nor the last of disasters that continues to kill and injure innocent people. What makes it more significant is that this is happening in the capital city of Delhi, which should be serving as a model city to the rest of the country.

Since independence, Delhi has witnessed several disasters which included building and other structural collapses. It’s a long and dubious list, one that Delhi must feel ashamed about.

Major Disasters in Delhi

15 November 2010 saw one of the worst building collapses in East Delhi, when a five-storey unauthorised building in Lalita Park collapsed on account of yet another floor being added. The disaster resulted in 70 persons losing their lives and several injured.

In June 2014, a five-storey 50-year old building in Inderlok collapsed leaving 10 people dead and several others injured. The same month saw another unauthorised three-storey building collapse in the Sadar Bazar area leaving three people dead and 11 injured.

In February this year, a section of the under construction Wazirabad-Janakpuri bridge collapsed in the Pitampura area that left three people seriously injured and two cars damaged.

Local residents of Delhi will remember the Sewa Nagar flyover collapsing at a time when the capital was hosting the Delhi Asian Games in 1982. In a rush to meet deadlines for the games, the quality of the flyover under construction was compromised and along with negligence on part of the contractors, resulted in the unfortunate collapse.

The story repeated itself, when the under construction foot over bridge on the new Barapullah road connecting Ring Road to INA Colony, collapsed just short of the Commonwealth Games in 2010. The Corp of Engineers of the Indian Army was called in to rapidly construct the foot over bridge.

In 2009, six people were killed and 13 injured at the Metro construction site near Lady Shri Ram College, when the launching girder collapsed, as the sixth segment was being placed between pillars 66 and 67. Amongst the dead was the site engineer.

So Why do Buildings and Structures Collapse, in the First Place?

The reasons are several.

Delhi is an old city that was built over time and without much planning. In the older parts of Delhi, many buildings are over 100 years old and are being used by people for residing and commercial purposes. Most of these buildings have outlived their life and are not designed for the loads they currently hold.

These buildings do not have covered electrical wires. The wires have been added randomly and without any safety or fire prevention measures, leaving all residents exposed to potential disaster. To compound the problem, the access roads are narrow and extremely congested, thereby making it impossible to mount rapid rescue operations in case of a mishap.

Furthermore, many buildings in Delhi are unauthorised and have sprung up without following any structural guidelines. Most of these buildings have used poor quality of materials during construction, leaving these buildings with limited load bearing capacity. Floors get added by unscrupulous builders for commercial gains, with total disregard to safety of the people who use it. Building owners are directly or indirectly involved in allowing unauthorized commercial activity in residential areas, while authorities turn a blind eye in exchange for bribe money.

The recent incident in Moti Nagar was allegedly caused by a compressor exploding. Can someone please stand up and explain how commercial activity was being allowed to take place in a residential area? And what action has been taken against the concerned authorities of the area for turning a blind eye to the unauthorised activity?

Most of the older buildings have been notified as dangerous by the authorities but people simply refuse to move out, in the absence of any suitable alternative. Everyone has to share the blame for this situation.
Delhi has a large proportion of unauthorised colonies that have sprung up over time and without any planning for civic amenities. The political class patronised these for vote politics but failed to provide the necessary services or guidelines for the safety of the people or quality of life. The authorities have merely exploited this situation to extort money from the hapless residents, leaving them to fend for themselves.

Due to low cost, these colonies have become magnets for migrant workers, who have no choice but to live in these miserable conditions and remain exposed to disaster, as and when they occur. This is where the government has failed. It’s the responsibility of the government to provide a decent quality of life that its residents deserve.

The problem is that all the laws are in place but implementation is where the city has failed its people. Legitimate residents of Delhi, honest people who pay their taxes get denied basic services like electricity and water and have to make do with poor support services like medical and fire, on account of the city being financially stretched in providing adequate services to the ever-growing population.

In cases of structural disasters involving bridges or large buildings, the most common cause is poor planning, poor quality of material used and negligence on part of the contractors. The sequence is repeated incident after incident, but no lessons seem to be learnt.

The sanctioning authorities fail to enforce construction and building codes on the contractors. The architects are rarely held responsible for poor design and site engineers, many of whom are overworked and overburdened with tight timelines, tend to overlook safety measures, all of which results in a disaster at some point in time.

It’s Time the Delhi Government Took Charge

The government has to give up vote bank politics. Rather than merely converting unauthorised colonies to authorised ones, the government must implement a clear phase-wise colony redevelopment. Today’s unauthorised colonies mostly comprise 2-3 storey structures. These can be demolished and high-rise buildings can be built, which are part of the overall urban plan and cater to a mix of residential, commercial, institutional and retail requirements of each area.

The existing residents must be included in the planning process, so that they can see for themselves the significant improvement in quality of their life, along with attractive compensation to those who wish to move out of the area and relocate to other areas. No plan will succeed unless there is a suitable and acceptable temporary accommodation provided.

Till date any attempt to even temporarily relocate residents has failed on account of miserable living conditions offered at alternate locations. The government has to seriously look into this aspect, if it hopes to undertake the much needed redevelopment of Delhi as a modern and environmentally friendly living space.

The government has to ensure building code compliance for all new buildings and review clearances to the existing ones. Unfortunately, a large part of Old Delhi does not meet urban building codes and therefore total redevelopment is the only way out.

Delhi will have to relook its existing laws on high-rises. Redevelopment can happen with private capital but only if it is commercially viable for the developer, after compensating the existing residents.

As far as infrastructure related construction goes, the government will have to crack down on corruption and make all concerned officials accountable, in case of any disaster. The laws are all in place but what is needed is strict compliance and speedy trials in cases of non-compliance.

The big question is – will the new government in Delhi show political will and commitment in redeveloping Delhi as a safe and modern city that offers a good quality of life to its people along with a sustainable and environment-friendly infrastructure, or will this be just another government that simply failed to deliver?