Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Lakshminagar building collapse

On the 15th instant, at 8 p.m., a five storey building in East Delhi’s Lakshminagar, to which yet another storey was being added, collapsed like a pack of cards. The building, in its 70 rooms, had housed a handicraft factory and three to four hundred persons – all poor migrant labourers and their families. Caught under the falling masonry, close to seventy people lost their lives and hundred others were injured. The rescue operation is still continuing but after almost two days of the disaster, chances of some more persons being pulled out alive from the rubble are getting slimmer and slimmer. The 20-25 year old building had been constructed violating all municipal laws and rules, it had no proper foundation but had five-six floors instead of the regulation three, the building material used was substandard and what made this all a deadly combination was ankle-deep water in the basement due to the unusually high water table even two months after the high flood in the nearby Yamuna river.

There are thousands of buildings, residential and commercial, in Delhi which have been built flouting all types of municipal laws and bylaws, sacrosanct principles and established practices of structural engineering, and fire safety regulations. Land is so expensive that unscrupulous owners and builders are always looking to add an unauthorised floor or two, to convert balconies and other open spaces into additional rooms absolutely unmindful of the extra weight they would be putting on the foundation and other load-bearing structures not designed to bear it. They also save by using second or third grade of building material and that less than the requirement. And the government and municipal officials which are there to ensure compliance with building regulations conveniently look the other way if their palms are sufficiently greased. For a price, approved building plans can be given a go by and completion certificates are sold as a commodity. The officials, including those of the police, greedily feed on the owners’ and builders’ greed and the consequence is an accident waiting to happen.

When it happens, like it did at Lakshminagar, the politicians promptly announce compensation to the families of the dead and the injured and order magisterial, sometimes even judicial, enquiries to fix responsibility and throw up lessons to learn to prevent similar tragedies in future. But that is only in name, in reality nothing ever changes. The government in this country is dead and defunct, coming to life only when money is to be made. The civil society and the people have to take charge if they want some semblance of order in the society. In their own interest they have to abide by the law and make public officials work to earn their salaries, and last but not the least they must come down collectively and heavily on the corrupt among these officials. The mass media and the aware and educated in the real sense have their roles cut out, they should make bold and live them. In that, and in that alone, could be the hope for the nation.

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