The wall collapse in Thiruvallur on Sunday, killing 11 workers from Andhra Pradesh, seems to confirm the notoriety of the state as the construction disaster capital of India.
Every foreign news agency and TV channel worth mentioning is reporting on the wall collapse. “Sunday’s accident comes less than 10 days after an 11-story building under construction collapsed in state capital Chennai, killing more than 60 people. Building collapses are common in India, where builders use poor enforcement of regulations to add unauthorized floors and use substandard materials, “ says Fox News.
“A massive demand for housing and endemic corruption often result in buildings being illegally constructed, along with use of shoddy materials and a lack of safety inspections,” reported AFP.
Those killed in the wall collapse were poor construction workers who had built lean-tos and shacks near the wall, a sentence found in most despatches. Fourth world standards in a country that is said to have already overtaken Japan as the third largest economy.
On June 28, a multi-storeyed building under construction had collapsed on Moulivakkam near Porur off Chennai. The residential project ‘Trust Heights’, promoted by real estate developer Prime Sristi Housing Pvt. Ltd, had two 11-storey buildings under construction ‘The Faith’ and ‘The Belief’. According to Fire and Rescue service personnel, the ‘The Faith’ collapsed on an adjoining building. With it the faith in good governance too.
We, the Chennaiites see swarms of these poorly paid labourers from states like UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa and neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, in their yellow safety helmets, working at Chennai metro railway construction sites. We have seen them waiting for buses back to their tin shacks.
Evidently abysmal economic conditions in their respective regions drive them to scour far and wide for survival, and this southern Indian state, with its booming construction industry, becomes their first choice.
With growing literacy on the one hand and mass migration to Gulf and elsewhere on the other, there is acute shortage of unskilled labour in Tamil Nadu. More important, the immigrant labour can be easily exploited, kept in near slavery. State laws to protect labourers are any way not too very strong, worse the enforcing machinery would care little for the lot of the migrant population.
Tamil Nadu Construction Workers Welfare Board doesn’t take cognisance of them at all. Indeed it has said no worker died or got injured at construction sites in Chennai since 2008, and it has not disbursed two-thirds of the fund it collected as cess. But the National Crime Records Bureau statistics, show that 17 people were killed in building collapses in Chennai in 2013, reports Times of India.
NGOs doing their bit for these unfortunate souls in the unorganized sector have been crying hoarse over their deplorable working conditions, lack of safety gear, unlivable accommodation, sexual abuse, lack of even rudimentary education for their children in these massive sweatshops, spread all over the state. Of course their plaintive appeals go unheard.
Look at this: The relatives of 61 victims of Porur building collapse, who are yet to receive compensation from the government, are faced with a much bigger struggle. Most of them are not registered under the Tamil Nadu government’s construction workers welfare board and are likely to be deprived of benefits like family pension, accidental death relief of Rs one lakh, and relief provided for registered manual workers of the board.
“As far as we know, most of these families may not get the benefits. While unscrupulous builders bring in migrant workers for cheaper wages, many from other states too lose the benefits,” said R Singaravelu, president of Construction Workers’ Federation of India, affiliated to the CITU. Among the victims, 38 workers belonged to Andhra Pradesh, while 14 were from Tamil Nadu and seven from Odisha. Two bodies remained unidentified until Saturday.
The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Jayalalithaa has announced a compensation of Rs.7 Lakh for the dead, and there is no knowing how many victim families will finally manage to get it and how much the middlemen will help to themselves.
That apart as usual the government has instituted an inquiry commission – this one headed by Justice Raghupathy, a retired judge of the Madras High Court.
Interestingly the Chief minister, who visited the site, defended the nodal body for the construction sector, the Chennai Metropolitan Development Agency (CMDA), asserting there was no error of omission or commission on its part.
When the CM herself is in such a hurry to get the agency off the hook, why would an inquiry commission, appointed by her, care or dare to hold its officials responsible for the tragedy in any way?
Environmentalist Nithyanand Jayaraman writes: Disasters will happen with frightening regularity when regulators and town planners avoid their responsibilities, lose their integrity and forget their humanity. The Porur building collapse was a result of negligence on the part of regulators. Here’s an instance where the regulators are the violators. Corporation of Chennai constructing an illegal road by dumping boulders within the intertidal zone in Marina Beach. It doesn’t take a genius to tell you that this road doesn’t stand a chance against a Bay of Bengal storm surge. It is almost as if a memorial to our immense stupidity in dealing with the tsunami is being built in a place that had the worst damage within Chennai city limits in 2004. Somebody needs to save us from our government.
An unholy nexus between the babudom, politicians and shady real estate guys has facilitated a virtual explosion in the construction industry. All rules and regulations are flouted with impunity, and of course grateful palms are regularly greased at various levels.
This sickening phenomenon dates back to the eighties. In 1988 after learning from press reports that 73 orders of exemption came to be passed in a day, the Consumer Action Group approached the Supreme Court seeking a declaration that Section 113 of the Act was ultra vires Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution and for quashing the 62 G.Os. granting exemption.
While that writ petition was pending in Supreme Court, the State of Tamil Nadu amended the Tamil Nadu Town and Country Planning Act, 1971 by the Amending Act, 1998 (Tamil Nadu Act 58 of 1998) by inserting Section 113-A to the Act, enabling regularization on payment of a mere Rs.20,000/- per square metre.
Eventually the Supreme Court set aside the 62 G.Os. granting exemption under section 113 of the Act, but left it open to them to apply afresh under Section 113-A of the Act.
Besides while upholding the validity of Section 113-A of the Act, the court described Section 113-A as a ‘one-time measure’ and underscored the need for taking effective steps to check at the root level, at the very nascent stage, such violations/deviations. It warned that before such pattern becomes cancerous and spreads to all parts of the country, it is high time that remedial measures were taken to check this pattern, as it retards development, jeopardises all purposeful plans of any city and liquidates the expenditure incurred in such development process.
The court observed: “Mere reading of this reveals administrative failure, regulatory inefficiency and laxity on the part of the authorities concerned being conceded which has led to the result, that half of the city buildings are unauthorised, violating the town planning legislation and with staring eyes the Government feels helpless to let it pass; as the period of limitation has gone, so no action could be taken. This mess is the creation out of the inefficiency, callousness and the failure of the statutory functionaries to perform their obligation under the Act. Because of the largeness of the illegalities it has placed the Government in a situation of helplessness as knowing the illegalities, which are writ large, no administrative action of demolition of such a large number of cases is feasible. The seriousness of the situation does not stay here when it further records, this is the pattern in other metropolitan cities of India. What is the reason? Does the Act and Rules not clearly lay down, what constructions are legal, what not? Are the consequences of such illegal constructions not laid down? Does the statute not provide for controlled development of cities and rural lands in the interest of the welfare of the people to cater to public convenience, safety, health etc.? Why this inaction? The Government may have a gainful eye in this process of regularisation to gain affluence by enriching coffers of the State resources but this gain is insignificant compared to the loss to the public, which is State concern also as it waters down all preceding developments. Before such pattern becomes cancerous and spreads to all parts of this country, it is high time that remedial measure was taken by the State to check this pattern. Unless the administration is toned up, the persons entrusted to implement the scheme of the Act are made answerable to the laches on their failure to perform their statutory obligations, it would continue to result with wrongful gains to the violators of the law at the cost of the public, and instead of development bring back cities into the hazards of pollution, disorderly traffic, security risks, etc. Such a pattern retards development, jeopardises all purposeful plans of any city, and liquidates the expenditure incurred in such development process.
“We may shortly refer to the possible consequences of the grant of such exemption under Section 113-A by collecting regularisation fees. Regularisation in many cases, for the violation of front setback, will not make it easily feasible for the corporation to widen the abutting road in future and bring the incumbent closer to the danger of the road. The waiver of requirements of side setback will deprive adjacent buildings and their occupants of light and air and also make it impossible for a fire engine to be used to fight a fire in a high-rise building. The violation of floor space index will result in undue strain on the civil amenities such as water, electricity, sewage collection and disposal. The waiver of requirements regarding fire staircase and other fire prevention and fire-fighting measures would seriously endanger the occupants resulting in the building becoming a veritable death trap. The waiver of car parking and abutting road width requirements would inevitably lead to congestion on public roads causing severe inconvenience to the public at large. Such grant of exemption and the regularisation is likely to spell ruin for any city as it affects the lives, health, safety and convenience of all its citizens. This provision, as we have said, cannot be held to be invalid as it is within the competence of the State Legislature to legislate based on its policy decision, but it is a matter of concern. Unless check at the nascent stage is made, for which it is for the State to consider what administrative scheme is to be evolved, it may be difficult to control this progressive illegality. If such illegalities stay for long, waves of political, humanitarian, regional and other sympathies develop. Then to break it may become difficult. Thus this inflow has to be checked at the very root. The State must act effectively not to permit such situation to develop in the wider interest of the public at large. When there is any provision to make illegal construction valid on that ground of limitation, then it must mean that the statutory authority in spite of knowledge has not taken any action. The functionary of this infrastructure has to report such illegalities within the shortest period, if not, there should be stricter rules for their non-compliance. We leave the matter here by bringing this to the notice of the State Government to do the needful for salvaging the cities and country from the wrath of these illegal colonies and construction.”
The Court also cautioned that the State’s power of exemption under section 113 of the Act has to be exercised with greater circumspection. Even if the section is silent about recording of reasons, it is obligatory on the Government while passing orders under Section 113, to record the reasons and the power of exemption could be exercised only in furtherance of the development of that area. The Court further observed that – ”When such a wide power is vested in the Government, it has to be exercised with greater circumspection. Greater is the power, greater should be the caution. No power is absolute, it is hedged by the checks in the statute itself. Existence of power does not mean to give one on his mere asking. The entrustment of such power is neither to act in benevolence nor in the extra-statutory field. Entrustment of such a power is only for the public good and for the public cause. …. So no exemption should be granted affecting the public at large. Various development rules and restrictions under it are made to ward off possible public inconvenience and safety. Thus, whenever any power is to be exercised, the Government must keep in mind, whether such a grant would recoil on the public or not and to what extent. If it does then exemption is to be refused. If the effect is marginal compared to the hardship of an individual that may be considered for granting. Such an application of mind has not been made in any of these impugned orders. Another significant fact which makes these impugned orders illegal is that section 113 empowers it to exempt but it obligates it to grant subject to such condition as it deems fit. In other words, if any power is exercised then the Government must put such condition so as to keep in check such person. We find that in none of these sixty-two orders any condition is put by the Government. If not this then what else would be the exercise of arbitrary power?”
Of course the stern observations made little impact on the powers-that-be in the state. Section 113-A was further amended whereby all buildings constructed on or before 31st August 2000 were made eligible for regularisation on payment of reduced regularisation fees. Thereafter, Tamil Nadu Town and Country Planning (Amendment) Ordinance 5 of 2001(Tamil Nadu Act 17 of 2001) was promulgated putting off the date for regularisation of the unauthorised constructions to 31st July 2001. Thereafter, the cut-off date for regularisation was again extended to 31st March 2002 by the Tamil Nadu Town and Country Planning (Amendment) Act, 2002 (Tamil Nadu Act 7 of 2002).
The validity of these amending Acts was again challenged as being ultra vires of Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India.
Also Traffic Ramaswamy, a well-known activist, filed a petition highlighting the violations of the Rules in construction of shopping complexes at T.Nagar and at N.S.C.Bose Road in Parrys area without allotting Car and Two Wheeler parking spaces in the multi-storied buildings.
The HC bench consisting of Justice A.P.Shah and Justice Chandru, quashed the amendments to Section 113-A of the Tamil Nadu Town and Country Planning Act, 1971 as ultra vires Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution. All orders for regularisation of such buildings (constructed after 28.2.99) passed pursuant to the amending provisions also stood quashed.
The judges noticed with alarm, “ The affidavits filed by the authorities, documents and other materials brought on record disclose a very sorry and sordid state of affairs prevailing in the matter of illegal and unauthorised constructions in the City of Chennai. It is seen that the builders have violated with impunity the sanctioned building plans, and the Rules relating to FSI, fire safety and parking facilities to the prejudice of the planned development of the city and at the peril of the occupants of the premises constructed or of the inhabitants of the city at large.
“Such wayward growth in illegal constructions has posed a serious threat to ecology and environment and affected water supply, sewerage and traffic movement facilities in the city. The violations of regulatory rules on such massive scale can result in development plan becoming merely a scrap of paper. On the one hand, various laws are enacted, master plans are prepared by expert planners, provision is made in the regulations also to tackle the problem of unauthorized constructions and misusers, and on the other hand, such illegal activities go on unabated openly under the gaze of everyone, without having respect for the law and other citizens.”
But the regularization spree continued unabated under successive governments, whether led by the DMK or the AIADMK. The last such order in 2012 related to illegal constructions up to July 2007.
After all both the DMK and ADMK depend on the real estate mafia for their party and election funds. All builders have to pay up – right from the local councillor or the panchayat clerk, the head of CMDA to ministers, everyone takes their cut.
And the speed money is duly passed on to the hapless public. When owning an apartment is an inevitable part of most middle class dreams, they spare no efforts to raise the funds required. Thus everyone is happy.
But one glitch is beyond a point you can’t jack up the prices. So at some stage the builder begins to cut corners, using substandard materials to stay afloat – resulting in disasters as in Porur recently.
In September 2008, a major fire erupted in Saravana Stores, a popular retail outlet, and situated in the ever busy and congested Ranganathan Street, T.Nagar. Two of its employees lost their lives and property worth crores of rupees was damaged.
“Experts said the accident was waiting to happen as T Nagar has many buildings that flout fire safety norms and development rules. Most of them exceed the floor space index and do not have the mandatory seven-metre space around the building to allow for movement of service and rescue vehicles. Many shops do not upgrade their transformers and wiring to handle the load of extra electrical fittings, which could lead to short circuits. A maze of narrow streets and huge crowds add to the problem. Police and fire service personnel say it could have been a major tragedy if the fire had broken out during working hours,” a newspaper report of the time said.
The irrepressible Traffic Ramasamy filed a PIL again, this time demanding the sealing of all unauthorized buildings.
See a very revealing time-line: Jul 27, 2007 |
First ordinance issued by the Tamil Nadu government granting one year moratorium on action against illegal buildings
Nov 13, 2007 |
Ordinance squashed by the Madras high court
Dec 4, 2007 |
Supreme Court grants status quo on action against illegal buildings, and it was extended periodically
Mar 15, 2011 |
Supreme Court vacates status quo and gives a free hand to the Madras high court to decide on pending cases
Aug 12, 2011 |
High court gives two months time to civic bodies to file an action taken report (ATR)
Oct 12, 2011 |
High court calls the ATR an eye-wash , and pulls up civic authorities for not demolishing a single building during the two months. Asks civic heads to file individual affidavits on action against violators
Oct 31, 2011 |
The CMDA and Corporation of Chennai seal 25 buildings in T Nagar
Nov 1, 2011 |
High court gives its nod for lock and seal drive, and also wants the drive to continue
Nov 11, 2011 |
Affected traders move the Supreme Court saying they were not heard by HC. The apex court orders maintenance of status quo and asks high court to decide the matter expeditiously
Dec 20, 2011 |
HC reserves its orders
Dec 21, 2011 |
HC asks shop owners to approach the monitoring committee with requisite details for remedy. Matters adjourned to fourth week of January 2012
Jan 9, 2011 |
SC orders desealing of 27 shops and establishments in T Nagar. Directs the opening of premises for six weeks during which the Madras HC will try to dispose of the matter.
Incidentally the lawyer who appeared on their behalf of the owners then is the present Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.
Still the matter is hanging fire while the unauthorized continue to function blithely.
How can public safety be ensured if courts issue such conflicting orders, eventually favouring the culprits?
We must also look into another issue. The inquiry commissions instituted in various other cases have proved to be just an eyewash. It is the same case with the Porur tragedy too.
Justice Raghupathy is already investigating charges of corruption in the construction of the new legislature building by the previous DMK government. This Raghupathy gained media attention when he alleged that A.Raja of the spectrum fame, had threatened him.
The allegation created quite a flutter and embarrassed the DMK no end. Understandable then he should be repeatedly chosen to head commissions – not only many perks go with such assignments, they could turn lucrative too for various reasons.
And so the venerable judge could be expected to prolong the inquiry into the Porur building collapse as much as possible. Mean time the 61 dead will have been forgotten.
The media will start analyzing what is wrong with Chennai buildings when yet another tragedy strikes – there will be a lot of breast-beating, and of course one more inquiry commission.
(Translated from the Tamil original.)