In the flurry of the doomsday predictions about the monsoon failure and the daily dose of forecasts that the meteorologists provided, it was as if the whole country had been caught napping when the rains came and the rivers were in spate. The visuals of these were even more disturbing, long lines women at the hydrants carrying bright plastic containers, and water trains coming from Vellore to parched Chennai and in the Marathwada region, perennially arid, crowds at huge wells that had gone almost dry, while elsewhere rivers in spate and little girls wading through waist deep water to reach school.
Even more disturbing were the loss of lives that the monsoon had inflicted due to landslides and house collapses and tourists stranded on highways and at hill resorts. The loss of lives at two places in different parts of the country in particular brought to the fore the many fault lines and inadequacies of the civic administration and the public at large.
In the congested Dongri area of Central Mumbai the collapse of a four-storey building claimed at least 14 lives, including infants and old women, with as many as 15 families trapped in the debris. Personnel of the fire brigade and the National Disaster Response Force had to wade through the rubble of cement and steel of the Kesarbhai Building on Tandel Street to bring out the bodies and reach for survivors.
Even before the rubble had been cleared, the blame game had begun with the chairman of the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority mentioning that a contractor had been hired to repair the 100-year-old building as early as 2012 but he had failed to deliver. The state Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, quick to reach the accident spot, said an enquiry would be conducted and the guilty punished. The structural audit of the building had been conducted by the Brihadmumbai Municipal Corporation as early as in 2017 and it had declared that the inmates had to be evacuated immediately.
Meanwhile in the North, in Solan in Himachal Pradesh an eatery by the highway came crashing down claiming 14 lives a week earlier. The rivers had been in spate and the incessant rain had led to landslides and roads being blocked. The dhaba collapsed burying 13 men of the 4 Assam Regiment who had stopped there for lunch. The dhaba- owner’s wife was the only civilian who died in the mishap. Here too the dhaba had been in a precarious condition and there were apprehensions about it collapsing any moment. There were 42 people trapped and the exhaustive rescue operations that the National Disaster Response Force and the Central Reserve Police Force and the local police helped in saving many lives.
In Mumbai, unfortunately, the disintegration of the Kesarbai Building in Dongri is not a one-off incident but makes it to the litany of tragedies which have struck the people of the metropolis in the form of the building collapses in the past decade. These instances have highlighted the city's crumbling infrastructure caused by the sheer ignorance and inefficiency of the state government and its various agencies.
Dongri itself is no stranger to such disasters, a building collapse in September of 2017 claiming the lives of as many as 22 residents, coming soon after another building collapsed near JJ Junction on Pakmodia street that claimed a dozen lives in the same year.
At that time, Mumbai Mayor Vishwanath Mahadevan had expressed anguish at the collapse of the building constructed by MHADA,and demanded stringent action against the body. However, he said nothing about the civic body's role in failing to caution residents of 'unsafe' buildings about the danger they were putting their families in.
In the past decade, every time a dilapidated structure has turned to rubble in Mumbai, concerned officials have shrugged the blame and passed it on with zero regard for the lives lost due to sheer negligence of the state government and its various departments as well as the civic body.
The list of disasters is long, the Kalwa and Mazgaon building collapses in 2013, the Vakola Santa Cruz building collapse in 2014, the Thane building collapse in 2015, the Chandivali, Bhendi Bazaar and Ghatkopar building collapses in 2017 and the Kamatipura and Bhiwandi building collapses in 2018 among others. And now the Dongri accident has thrown the spotlight on this city and brought the economic capital to a standstill. A study done in 2017 had concluded that Mumbai alone accounted for 10 per cent of structural collapses in India between 2012 and 2017.
In the past decade, the sight of crumbling infrastructure is one that the residents of Mumbai have got accustomed to. Despite these tragedies little has been done to repair dilapidated buildings, some of which were constructed almost a century ago. And worse, very little has been done to identify such death traps and inform the residents in order to prevent a tragedy.
The BMC clarified within minutes of the collapse that the building was owned by MHADA and that in July 2017, they had brought its condition, described as ‘dilapidated and unfit for habitation’ to the notice of the Building Repair and Reconstruction Board (MBRR), a wing of Mhada. ‘There is no doubt the collapsed building is owned by Mhada,’ said a BMC official.
According to the Mhada, the collapsed building was illegal, and it was not under their jurisdiction and the president of the repair board, Vinod Gosalkar, said ‘the building was completely illegal, and not under Mhada’s jurisdiction for us to act. Hence, it will not be our responsibility to vacate it. Whether or not it was the BMC’s responsibility, can only be concluded after an inquiry.’
The Mhada went on to say that the ‘Kesarbai Housing society is a cessed building, and is located near an illegal building that collapsed. It was declared dilapidated and vacated in 2018.’ The building that was constructed in the 1940s and vacated by Mhada in 2018 was declared cessed later.
The state housing minister, Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, during a visit to the site, said, ‘The building is illegal, and is privately owned. We are probing who will be held responsible for the collapse, and the number of lives lost,’ while Safdar Karmali, trustee of Aloo Paroo Trust, said, ‘The trust owned both the buildings, of which one was vacated, and one collapsed. The building is legal, and I am paying cess for it. Mhada had also conducted audit of the building seven months ago, but nothing was communicated to us.’
He said that the redevelopment of the building’ is stuck for long, and there are problems in carrying out redevelopment of cessed buildings, considering Mhada offers temporary accommodation in Mahul, and nobody is ready to go to Mahul from south Mumbai’. He said that somewhere it is the government authorities who are responsible for the delayed redevelopment of the society.
There are total 499 buildings in Mumbai that are in extremely dangerous conditions owing to their dilapidated status, and require immediate vacation. The BMC declares a list of such buildings every year before the monsoon.
Meanwhile in Solan there were 42 people at the eatery when it collapsed and all the survivors were rescued within the first hour of the rescue operation. The Solan deputy commissioner said there would be a magisterial enquiry that would be completed in 15 days and the sub-divisional magistrate who would be heading the enquiry said slush and heavy rain had been hampering the rescue operations. The Dharampur police have registered a case under sections 304-A and 336, causing death by negligence and endangering life or personal safety of others, against the eatery’s owner.
The chief minister, who visited the spot soon after, said that according to initial investigations the structure was not built to specifications. There were more such buildings in the state and owners had built them without following the laws. ‘Whatever is required to check these things would be done to prevent such disasters and loss of human lives’.