India has witnessed a significant number of building collapses in the past 18 months. There have been seven major building collapses in three Indian cities (Mumbai, Chennai, Vadodara) alone, resulting in a total of 234 deaths, along with innumerable injuries and economic losses.

The most recent building collapse at Moulivakkam, Chennai on June 28 of this year killed 61 people, while the building collapse last year at Mumbra (near Mumbai) killed 74 people.

Two of the collapses (in Vadodara and Mazgaon, Mumbai) relate to buildings built or used by the government or its employees. These statistics do not account for the major and minor fatal building collapses in other cities and small towns which go largely unreported in the media.

High mishap rate

None of the collapses discussed above has occurred in the event of a disaster, such as an earthquake or fire or cyclone. We restrict ourselves to the discussion of collapses which are not triggered by an external unusual event. Collapses may occur during construction or during the service life of a building. The collapses at Chennai and Mumbra occurred during construction. The other five collapses happened to buildings in use, and the age of these buildings was less than thirty years, within the expected useful life of at least 50 years.

Buildings typically fail (without an undue external event) due to deficient structural design, insufficient/incorrect detailing, poor construction, use of deficient building materials, poor maintenance, or due to a combination of these factors. In general, buildings that are designed and built according to the national building standards (National Building Code of India) have a fair level of in-built safety factors; design loads are more than the normally expected loads and there are safety factors embedded in the material properties.

It is expected that even if a building does fail, it would give adequate warning so as to ensure safe egress and prevent loss of life. And yet, all the seven building failures under discussion collapsed without giving sufficient warning.

A study of building failures in the US covering 11 years between 1989 to 2000 recorded 225 failures (including both partial and total collapses) with a total loss of lives of 97 persons.

This implies about 9 lives lost per year on average in the US, as compared to our record of 234 deaths in 18 months from just 7 select collapses.

Regulation required

Building construction in India is largely an unregulated industry.

And, a robust development regulation system should have the following

Strong legislation : a strong legislative framework empowering the regulatory system. While most states do have some form of such a mechanism, it is currently weak in structure and implementation.

Techno-legal regime : a regulatory system referenced to the National Building Code. The Bureau of Indian Standards prepares codes for design and construction, but these codes get legitimacy through the building byelaws of the local authority.

Enforcement protocol : Internal checks and balances that enhance openness and transparency in the building approval process will help to usher in a clean system. This includes a rigorous mechanism for verifying and approving building designs.

Quality control : a mechanism to monitor the quality of construction, through a testing and monitoring protocol for compliance with approved designs and drawings is needed.

Licensing of civil engineers : There is inadequate specification of qualification and work experience requirements; nor is there any means of ensuring their competence. There is no systematic continuing education programme for improving periodically professional capacity. A separate Board for licensing of structural engineers and construction engineers is required to facilitate competency in certification.

Unauthorised construction : a system for dealing with unauthorised construction is called for.

Professional misconduct : a system is needed for fixing responsibility for misconduct related to building failures and powers for punitive action. A primary requirement underlying the above regulations is professional integrity in administration. The regulatory and licensing mechanisms must not degenerate into a ‘license permit raj’. The Chennai collapse is an example of deficient engineering design. The Mumbra building was illegal;. it is a glaring example of a weak enforcement of development control regulations, compounded by deficient design and construction.

A restructuring of the development control regulations across the states at the local municipal level is called for.

The writers teach at IIT Madras

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