Editorial: Built on a shaky foundation

Loss of life due to the willful ignorance of private builders/contractors or the apathy of administrative officials is unpardonable. In matters such as these, the government can certainly do well by cracking the whip and making an example of the defaulters.
Tiruvottiyur housing board collapse
Tiruvottiyur housing board collapse

Chennai

Two recent incidents in Tamil Nadu highlighted the consequences of neglect, when it comes to the state of buildings occupied for institutional and residential use. The first incident occurred on Dec 17 at a private school in Tirunelveli, where three students were killed and four injured after a toilet wall collapsed on top of them. The school’s Correspondent, Principal and the contractor who built the school were arrested post the accident, which prompted a thorough inspection of all schools in the State.
Just days later, an apartment building that was part of the Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board tenements at Tiruvottiyur, came crashing down, ten minutes after all its residents had vacated the premises, having heeded the warning of a former councillor of the municipality. This time, there was no loss of life. Citizens of the State are now inured to such tragedies, which have become a mainstay of headlines during and after the monsoons. One might recall that during Nov 2021’s rains, as many as nine people, including four children and five women had been killed after a residential building collapsed in Pernambut, Vellore.
Regarding the episode at Tiruvottiyur, residents pointed out that it was a calamity waiting to happen. Despite raising several complaints with the TNUHDB, the officials had entertained no requests other than the re-plastering of walls and ceilings of such structures, and a few miscellaneous repairs. Pleas to assess the stability of the structure had also fallen on deaf ears. Sadly, the lessons from previous episodes of avoidable incidents have bounced off consecutive administrations who resort to reactionary measures, such as solatium to placate the momentary anguish of the public, and then brush the matter under the carpet.
Back in 2014, the collapse of a multi-storeyed building in Moulivakkam that killed as many as 55 people remains an open wound for Chennaiites. It was after this accident that the Justice R Regupathy Commission, which probed into the events that led up to the collapse, made a set of recommendations that introduced broad-based legislation making insurance packages mandatory for builders. The Commission had put forth some radical proposals including strict penal provisions and directing developers and construction firms to set aside significant sums in fixed deposits, to mitigate shortcomings in quality and delivery.
One of the suggestions of the panel was the reconstitution of the CMDA to constitute a committee that included a technical officer of the agency, a law officer, soil investigation experts as well as professionals in foundation design and structural engineering who will be tasked with compulsory of monitoring all mega projects. The focus of the group was to monitor compliance and quality issues pertaining to all mega projects during various stages of development .
The TN government had flown into action post the Tiruvottiyur incident. The TNUHDB Minister TM Anbarasan had said that 23,000 old and dilapidated tenements spread across TN are set to be demolished and reconstructed. A sum of Rs 2,500 cr has been set aside this fiscal to address this issue with 7,500 tenements to start with. Buildings older than 30 years will fall under the ambit of this restoration project.
To ensure the structural stability of buildings belonging to the government and to private schools in the Tirunelveli district, 18 teams have been put together. They comprise officials from the Departments of Revenue, Rural Development, Town Panchayats, Municipalities, Education, and from the Tirunelveli Corporation as well. Assessments made in Madurai also revealed that of the 24 government high and higher secondary schools, 57 units in buildings which include classrooms and toilets have been deemed unsafe.
Loss of life due to the willful ignorance of private builders/contractors or the apathy of administrative officials is unpardonable. In matters such as these, the government can certainly do well by cracking the whip and making an example of the defaulters.

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