Collapse of residential building in Dongri, Mumbai: Lessons for cities

Fourteen people were killed and many more trapped after a decades-old four-storey building collapsed in South Mumbai’s crowded Dongri neighbourhood in the morning of 16th July 2019. The crowded locality with narrow and winding lanes made it difficult for the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and the local relief agencies to track and rescue the trapped persons, which were feared to be around forty in number and included children as well. The rescue work was getting hampered also owing to the rains as well as the stream of dignitaries who made it a point to visit the place to get first hand information and offer advice to the rescue staff.
The frustration of the people with the authorities was palpable and understandable. However, the response of the authorities saw a situation of passing the buck of responsibilities and blame-game among the authorities and the political parties.

Earlier incidents
For Mumbai, this is not the first such major mishap. On April 4, 2013, as many as 74 people were killed in a building collapse in Thane city, near Mumbai. Those killed included 18 children. Besides this, nearly 60 people were reported to have been injured in the collapse. On 27th September 2013, a five- storey building had collapsed in Mazgaon area of Mumbai, and 61 people had died and 32 others were injured in the disaster. In September 2017, 33 people had died when a five-storey building collapsed in South Mumbai’s Bhendi Bazaar area. The building had already been categorised as dilapidated and was due for demolition. Nearly 20 people were injured, including those part of the rescue operations. In December 2018, an under-construction building collapsed in Mumbai’s Goregaon area near the famous Azad Maidan, killing three people and injuring eight. Most of the people injured and killed were labourers who were working at the construction site.
The incidents of this nature, but often with fewer casualties, happen elsewhere in the country from time to time, but get noticed mostly in local newspapers only. The discussions usually hover around rescue operations and determination of responsibility for the mishap. The issue of identifying the root cause for the calamity, which are almost invariably man-made, escape serious examination and determined action for a sustainable framework for the future. As a result, the mishaps continue to occur.

Reasons for collapse of buildings
On the whole, the general reasons observed for collapse of the buildings are weak structures dilapidated often due to aging, unauthorised and unsafe addition of floors or other alterations in existing buildings, usually in slums or similar congested localities, unauthorised use of residential buildings for commercial purposes etc. At times, natural calamities like earthquakes too cause such havoc.

Case study of Mumbai
Greater Mumbai is the largest city in India and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is among the oldest ones. The BMC is also the richest municipality in the country. While Mumbai has gotten flak for the series of building collapses, we need to review the governance system for handling the dilapidated buildings in the City. In fact, the case study of Mumbai offers an interesting story that could be useful for all cities in designing suitable legal and administrative arrangements for handling the issue of unsafe buildings.

The Mumbai Building Repairs and Reconstruction Board
The Bombay Rents, Hotel and Lodging House Rates Control Act 1947, popularly known as the Bombay Rent Act, had provided that the rent at which a property was last let as on September 1, 1940, would be frozen, except where there was a prior agreement between the tenant and the landlord for periodic revisions of rent. As a result, a stage was reached in most cases where rents were no longer sufficient to cover even the taxes payable for the rented properties and the landlords stopped effecting repairs to the tenanted properties leading to rapid deterioration of the buildings. Realizing the gravity of the matter, the State Legislature enacted “the Mumbai Building Repairs and Reconstruction Board Act, 1969” The Act provided for constitution of the Mumbai Building Repairs and Reconstruction Board (MBRRB) to carry out structural repairs to the old buildings to make them safe for habitation. The Act also provided for wholesale redevelopment; in case structural repairs could not improve the condition of the building, then the MBRRB could pull down the dilapidated structure and raise a new structure thereupon. The Act also empowered the BMC to impose and collect a cess on the dilapidated buildings so as to raise resources for reconstruction/redevelopment. These buildings came to be called ‘cessed buildings’. Subsequently, this Act was repealed and its salient features were incorporated in Chapter VII of the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Act, 1976 and the MBRRB was made an adjunct organisation of the overarching MHADAuthority (MHADA) created under the Act.

The cessed buildings
The cessed building were categorised according to the year of construction and the details in the year 1969 and as of March 2008 are as follows:
The number of the cessed buildings has not declined significantly since 2008, as a study by the Mumbai Transport Support Unit indicated that only 7% of the total number of cessed buildings in the city have been reconstructed since 1999. A report by the Comptroller & Auditor General of India observed in 2013 that out of the 19,642 cess buildings identified, the MBRRB had so far reconstructed/redeveloped only 1,482 of them. Structural repairs of 3,187 buildings though identified were not sanctioned due to fund constraints .
The cess is to be collected by the BMC and transferred to the MBRRB along with a matching contribution from the State Government and supplementary contributions from the BMC and the MHADA Authority. However there have been serious delays in transfer of funds to the MBRRB and over the years. The C&AG report of 2013 cited before had noted that as at the end of March 2012, the arrears in collection of cess and short remittances by BMC and the state government to the MBRRB was Rs. 907.81 crore. A more recent statement from MBRRB officials indicated that the total arrears receivable by it from the BMC and the state government stood at Rs. 2,394 crore.” This has been a major reason for continuation of the existence of the dilapidated old buildings that are collapsing one after the other.

Multiplicity of agencies
The framework for addressing the issue of repairs and reconstruction of the dilapidated cessed buildings involved many statutory agencies that work almost in parallel with no overarching structure. On paper, it is the MBRRB that is responsible for the subject. However, the MBRRB suffers from serious resource constraints, both financial and staff and is largely dependent on the support from the BMC, which is not helping it much. In fact, the basic responsibility of identification of the dilapidated building, the imposition of the cess thereon, the collection of the cess, transfer of the collected cess to the MBRRB through the state government and making an additional annual financial contribution to the cess fund for the MBRRB, all come under the jurisdiction of the BMC. Furthermore, the MBRRB Act also requires the BMC to provide managerial and technical support to the MBRRB as and when called for.
Even though the MBRRB is the agency especially created and empowered for reconstruction of dilapidated buildings under Chapter VII of the MHAD Act, Section 102 of this Act also empowers the BMC to perform the same functions. This brings out the overlap in the first instance.
Then there is the MHADA, which has an overarching role for development of the major urban agglomerations of the state such as Aurangabad, Nagpur, Nashik, Pune, etc. The overall annual budget of MHADA for 2019-20 is Rs 8,259 crore. Of this, the share for its Mumbai Board is of the order of Rs 2,221 crore, which is almost 20 times the budget of MBRRB. However, MHADA does not share any accountability for the stressed dilapidated buildings that have not been getting due care and attention in the mega city of Mumbai.
The redevelopment and reconstruction of the dilapidated buildings such as the cessed buildings is not a mere civil construction activity. It is, in fact, a multidimensional task with impact on large number of individuals, areas and institutions. It is high time the responsibility for redevelopment and reconstruction of the dilapidated buildings is assigned wholly to the BMC. The MBRRB could be retained as a specialised agency for handling this task, but it should be brought under the folds of the BMC. This would facilitate the administrative integration of involvement of the elected representatives as well as of the zonal deputy commissioners and other officers of the BMC into management of the issues relating to reconstruction and redevelopment of the dilapidated buildings. It would also facilitate faster flow of the cess funds and other financial and technical resources from the BMC for the MBRRB activities.
Another agency that works for congested areas of Greater Mumbai is the Mumbai Slum Improvement Board (MSIB) formed by the Govt. of Maharashtra in November 1992. The mission of the MSIB is to improve the environmental living of the slum dwellers of the Mumbai City & Suburbs District. The MSIB functions under the control of the MHADA.
It is obvious that numerous agencies, such as the BMC, MHADA, MBRRB and MSIB are operating for handling the issue of conversion of the dilapidated buildings into safe structures. This multiplicity needs to be streamlined. It may be appreciated that of these four agencies, it is the BMC that is most suited to handle the subject. This is so because of a variety of factors. One, it is the BMC that is tasked to identify the dilapidated buildings and impose a cess for repairs, reconstruction or redevelopment of the same. Secondly, the human resources, in the taxation as well as the engineering departments are far superior vis-à-vis MBRRB/MHADA. Thirdly, the BMC is an elected constitutional entity and the elected representatives (Councillors) can facilitate in identification of the issues in a highly effective manner. Fourthly, the BMC not only collects the cess, which is transferred to the MBRRB along with a matching contribution from the government, the BMC also provides additional financial contribution to the MBRRB for the purpose. Lastly, the BMC functions for integrated management of all localities in the city.

Neighbourhood plans
The dilapidated buildings are usually located in the form of clusters in certain localities and not as isolated structures hither and thither. The task of redevelopment of such set of buildings would be greatly facilitated if a “Neighbourhood plan’ based approach is adopted. This approach should include redevelopment of not only the dilapidated buildings but also the associated civic infrastructure and services of the entire neighbourhood. Such neighbourhood plans can be best prepared by BMC. Furthermore, BMC would be in the most advantageous position to prepare realistic projects for such neighbourhoods and also for integrating the same with other ongoing projects. Involvement of the elected municipal councillors would provide further reliability to such projects, besides making the same cost-effective.

Structural audit of old buildings
The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) has also formulated to ensure safety of buildings for various eventualities including natural calamities, fire, etc. It is imperative that these Standards should not only be adopted in various operational manuals of the municipalities. The Model Building Byelaws (MBBL) for the municipalities, prepared and notified by the Ministry of Housing & Urban Affairs in 2016, have provided that every building that is over 50 years old, should be subject to structural audit by registered structural safety engineers. These provisions have been duly incorporated in the building byelaws of various municipalities. However, most municipalities are not implementing this provision of MBBL effectively. As a result, the old buildings are not audited for structural safety.
The issue of structural safety of old buildings would also arise in case of retrofitting, additions or alterations to an existing structure. Unfortunately, this aspect is not receiving adequate attention in the civic regulations. Even where the byelaws/regulations of a municipality provide for such an audit, the same does not get enforced, as people proceed with the alteration without securing approval from the municipality.
This becomes a major potential cause for collapse of the old buildings. Such situations are to be handled through improved vigilance and enforcement by the local body.

In conclusion
Housing is a fundamental need for every human being and it is good news that hardly any Indian family is now without a shelter. However, all shelters may not be structurally safe and it would be the bounded duty of the local body concerned to ensure the same. This requires policy level interventions at the level of state governments as well as management level actions at the level of the local bodies. Governments need to ensure that the multiplicity of agencies for regulating the issue of structural safety. Seeing the experience of recent past, the Municipality seems to be the most appropriate agency to handle this matter.
The municipality on its part should be equipped with adequate staff, finances and decision making powers to undertake surveys of dilapidated buildings and repairs or redevelopment of the same. With such arrangements in position, we may expect a significant reduction in the occurrence of the cases of collapse of old and dilapidated buildings that are currently becoming increasingly common.

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