Spotlight back on illegal constructions

Nothing is being done to introduce measures to check repetition of Kumarhatti-like mishaps

Ambika Sharma

The brutal killing of an Assistant Town and Country Planner and a PWD labourer in May last year by a hotelier, whose unauthorised construction was being demolished by the district administration, has failed to act as an eye-opener for the state government.

As if this was not enough, the catastrophic death of 14 people, including 13 defence personnel, on July 14 in a building collapse on the Kumarhatti-Nahan road has once again turned the spotlight on the devastating problem of unauthorised constructions  plaguing various parts of Solan district. 

Human life appears to have little value as the state government is yet to wake up and introduce stringent measures to check repetition of such incidents in the state.

With abject lack of regulatory control over the proliferating constructions both in rural and urban areas of Solan, buildings have crept up at every nook and corner of the unsafe hilly slopes, unmindful of the fact whether these areas could withstand such concrete structures. The situation is worsening in areas lying in the precincts of regulated areas such as Barog, Kumarhatti, Sanawar, Kimmughat-Chakki-Ka-Mor, Koro Kainthri  and Sultanpur among other areas, where there is no constrain on raising even six to seven-storey buildings.  

What has further set the alarm bells ringing is the recent move of the state government to constitute a Cabinet sub-committee to identify areas lying in the vicinity of towns and rural areas, which can be excluded from the regulations of the Town and Country Planning (TCP) Act across the state. This committee is supposed to submit its report within three months, though it is yet to identify areas which would be examined. 

Understandably, the move stems from the pressure imposed by a section of builders to rid certain areas of the stringent building bylaws. It remains to be seen whether its members would weigh the repercussions of this double-edged sword, which would open the floodgates for rampant concretisation of the fragile hills, which were already crumbling under the weight of multi-storey unauthorised constructions.

While the collapse of buildings was not new in Solan, it was the mounting death toll, which has become a cause for concern. Increasing commercialisation at every available place of the  Solan and Kasauli tehsils has left little safe area and given never-ending demand, buildings were now coming up even on unsafe land, where a huge quantity of debris has been dumped in the past.

Cursory inquiry 

The administration conducts a cursory magisterial inquiry each time such an eventuality occurs.  In one such inquiry, an official had clearly stated that no structural engineer was involved in the construction of a building, which had collapsed in Solan and it was constructed on an area, where debris had been dumped. The structure not only lacked the requisite deep foundation, but it collapsed even before its completion. The role of a structural engineer had then been mandatory in all future constructions in its recommendations. A significant recommendation to allow only two-storeys instead of three plus one for parking space had also been made for the Barog area. The recommendations have failed to be practically implemented even today.  Interestingly, the TCP Department had made significant amendments in the existing bylaws after the Bhuj earthquake to make these more environment friendly. But that has failed to rein in on the callous realtors, whose lone aim is to enhance their profitability at whatever cost. 

Dichotomy exposes chinks 

Ironically, the dichotomy in the building laws exposes the chinks in the regulatory framework of the state government and sets the pace for the mushrooming of unsafe buildings. While soil testing is mandatory for all government buildings to ascertain the suitability of a site for construction by the geologists, private builders rarely go in for such tests. Builders in rural areas have a free run with no stipulation and this has aggravated the problem of unsafe buildings.

Notably, the Solan area has been listed in the earthquake hazard Zone-V, which is seismically the most active region. Though added caution is the need of the hour, the TCP Department conversely has not initiated the move to include fast developing areas such as Kumarhatti-Nahan Road and other such areas under its regulatory framework.

While successive state governments could do little to ensure that private buildings incorporate due safety aspects, the NGT directions restricting the number of storeys to two plus one in the vulnerable Kasauli Planning Area has been challenged in the court.

Lack of will to blame

Clearly, the will to check unauthorised buildings has been largely amiss in the successive state governments and the administration does wake up after each such incident and elaborate inquires fill files whose recommendations remain a mere formality, at least that is what the past incidents indicate.

Former state geologist Arun Sharma said: “Soil testing should be made compulsory in the state and the government can empanel qualified geologists in all districts to issue this certification. Unless the strata is geologically tested and certified, no building should be allowed to come up as one doesn’t know where debris has been dumped in the past.

“Geological certification had been made mandatory in Shimla MC area in the 1980s, after building collapse incidents and though it was strictly enforced for about a year, it was later abandoned following public pressure.  The government should introduce such regulations again, so that the safety of buildings can be ensured,” he said.

No lessons learnt from past incidents in Solan

  • Sample these incidents of building collapse, which occurred in Solan and its precincts in the recent years. A three-storey building collapsed on the Kumarhatti-Nahan road in 2012, after it developed cracks and had to be vacated. This spot lies close to the Sehaj Tandoori Dhaba, which collapsed on Sunday. Another building lying in its vicinity had tilted in the recent past owing to excessive weight. Though some corrective measures were taken by the owner to restore the building, it has exposed the vulnerability of the area, where several multi-storey buildings of 6 to 7 storeys have come up in the recent years. Terming these structures as vulnerable in the view of another building collapse, which took place a few years ago, Savita Kumari, a local resident, agrees that people have blatantly ignored the norms due to sheer greed and no lessons have been learnt from the past incidents. 
  • In yet another case, two buildings — a private four-storeyed structure and an office of the Special Area Development Authority — had  suffered immense damage, when huge debris from the hill above fell on the buildings claiming one life near Barog a few years ago. 
  • Still worse, about 70 students of Class VI and VIII of Sarvhitkari Shiksha Niketan situated on the Kumarhatti bypass had a miraculous escape in August 2016, when a portion of their school building, including their classrooms on the fourth floor, caved in. “It had been constructed at a time when the Town and Country Planning Act was not in force. Nor had any building map been cleared neither was any permission availed later to raise additional structures. In this case, too weak foundation, which lacked adequate strength to withstand the weight of the five-storey structure, had emerged as a major cause of the mishap. Though institutional buildings are supposed to seek a stability certificate from the PWD, this norm had been observed in the breach,” recalls Town and Country Planner Leela Shyam.
  • An under-construction building collapsed in the Deoghat area of Solan in June 2010, following a downpour. Though no loss of life was reported, as no construction was under way when the mishap took place, it had put a question mark on the quality of construction material. Another building met the same fate near St Luke’s school a few years ago as well as on the Sukki-Jori-Sanawar road a few years ago. 

In Solan town alone, as many as 2,100 unauthorised structures were initially identified about two years ago, following the High Court directions and later, this number was brought down to about 170, when only buildings having five storeys were included in this list as per a GPS-based survey. Still worse, only about 62 buildings were finally considered for action though little has been done till today — Pawan Gupta, Former chief, Solan MC
 
A coordinated approach should be adopted in rural areas, which are outside the ambit of the TCP norms and panchayats should be equipped to ensure that due safety measures are adopted by residents while undertaking constructions, which should be more stringent for commercial purposes— C Palrasu, Director, TCP
RELATED Raze 98 structures in vicinity of airport: HC