Dharmendra Jore: A fallen building, a failed system

Jul 31, 2017, 06:12 IST | Dharmendra Jore

Don't wait for another Ghatkopar-like accident to reform the policy that allows culprits with political clout to get away with 'mass murder' of innocent residents

Every time a building collapses in the city and kills innocent residents, outrage breaks out. Angry survivors, activists and politicians demand action against the culprits, which includes developers and civic officials, as they prima facie appear to be responsible for causing deaths and permanent disability to tax-paying citizens. And as time passes by, the cries for justice wane out in thin air. The cycle continues.

Unfortunately, it requires yet another tragedy of the same kind to get us together to fight against the people who repeatedly fail us, murder our own, and get away with it.

Where's building repairs policy?
The Ghatkopar building collapse on Thursday has re-ignited the issue. Vested political interests have been adding fuel to this fire, but while playing the musical chairs of blame game, they have completely ignored the fact that in a megapolis like Mumbai, where new buildings come up every few days, and where thousands of dilapidated buildings need scientific repairs, it does not have a building repairing policy of its own. The same policy could be applicable to the rest of Maharashtra.

So what do you call this negligence of successive governments, or callous attitude of implementing agencies combined with carelessness of residents who undertake 'fatal' civil works? Policymakers have always struggled to stem the rot, mainly because of political interference by their own people. Denial that the person responsible does not belong to their party does not hold any water, because the survivors know the reality. In case of the Ghatkopar case and many other incidents in the past, it was established that the culprits wielded political clout and used their money and muscle power to strong-arm complainants and had civic officials working for them.

Mind you, there is a legal deterrent in place to book a ward officer and in-charge of a respective police station for any kind of illegal constructions/ encroachment in their jurisdiction, but hardly any official has been booked, chargesheeted and punished. However, actions were taken as per political convenience when it came to finding a reason for disqualifying local corporators.

Government's confession
In the legislative houses, CM Devendra Fadnavis was candid in confessing that the administration had failed in taking action against civic and police officials because fixing responsibility was a tough task as the officers kept on changing. He said that in future, an online system of granting approvals and lodging complaints (by the affected public) would help in bringing the culprits to book. He also announced a series of measures to avoid recurring building collapses.

Fadnavis should expedite the system so that people are empowered and not hassled or threatened when they lodge a complaint against any civic work taken up by an individual or housing society that is bound to weaken the structural stability of their building. However, empowering citizens should not translate into creating parallel power centres. For example, the office-bearers of the society, if granted enormous powers, might end up victimising those residents they despise.

There needs to be a balance between the work that these 'watch dogs' - both in government and private - are entitled to carry out. We are not denying a possibility of corruption at any stage, but what our system needs to have is a provision for prosecuting all people responsible under criminal charges. After all, innocent people die in building collapses.

Begin with basics
But, for establishing charges, the investigators would need evidence. In the Ghatkopar collapse, civic officials escaped a disciplinary action for lack of evidences against them. The CM also copped to this fact. So, why not make some changes to the basics system? Why not start documenting the process from the very first stage?

The primary thing that needs to be done is to have a 'legislated' guideline in place for registered and unregistered housing societies. Currently, there is no such mechanism - every resident and owner of a commercial unit in the building should submit a plan of repairs/modification to the society and the civic body. The plan should be approved by registered structural engineers and architects.

A reputed architect and Congress MLC, Anant Gadgil, pointed out to the house that interior decorators without knowledge of civil/structural engineering were largely responsible for damaging the building's stability. The government should mull over Gadgil's observation, verify it and incorporate measure to check the menace. The thought may appear archaic, but to have a controlled 'inspector raj' in the matters of life and death should suit us. What we strongly ask for is to have a foolproof mechanism to fix responsibility for establishing the crime, conduct unbiased investigations and a provision for strictest possible 'criminal' action against the mass murders.

Dharmendra Jore is political editor, mid-day. He tweets @dharmendrajore. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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