Each time a building collapses, our team at micro Home Solutions is severely pained. In the early years, each collapse meant long discussions about the possible causes and solutions. Now we know that the reasons are obvious–poor construction quality, no structural precautions, low lying areas prone to flooding, overloading, etc.
As I read last night about the latest 4-story building that has collapsed in north-east Delhi that has killed one and injured 14 people, I remembered this excellent post by Architect Marco Ferrario, co-founder of mHS on the company blog that reminds us (professionals, government, citizens) of the moral imperatives of building unsafe structures and putting lives at risk. Am reproducing it here and the original can be found here.
I must put in a word here for how impressed I have been with Marco’s sense of empathy and dedication to the cause of building safety. Far away from his home in Italy, he has spent several years in India, documenting and finding solutions for self-built settlements that represent perhaps the most pressing challenge and opportunity for Indian urbanization. Thank you, Marco, for teaching me so much 🙂
Savar and Thane highlight a moral imperative we cannot ignore
May 1, 2013 by Marco Ferrario
In the last month we have been witness to two building collapses. Or at least two have been widely covered by the media. The first one happened in Thane (Mumbai), with a toll of 74 lives. The second one happened last week in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Over 400 people lost their lives, and the death count is still rising.
These events happen quite regularly in rapidly growing South Asian cities, often involving small buildings in low-income, semi-formal and informal neighborhoods.
There is not an official record of such events, but a graph recording their incidence over recent years would inevitably show an upward trend, with an increasingly exponential shape.
These collapses are not usually investigated and their causes are explained with generic reasons. In Mumbai the media reported ‘use of substandard materials’ as the cause. In Dhaka they are simply talking about ‘bad construction’.
‘Bad construction’ is not far from the truth. But what the media must realize, and what communities in informal settlements may or may not be aware of, is that this ‘bad construction’ is the rule rather than the exception.
Normally, buildings in the same settlement are built in the same way. It is likely that only marginal variables (level of use and degradation, slight differences in amount or quality of materials) leave buildings around the collapsed garment factory in Savar or the collapsed apartment building in Thane still standing. It is alarming how minimal these differences really are.
Collapses caused by heavy vertical loads, as in these recent cases, are relatively rare. But how will buildings in these types of settlements behave in the case of horizontal loads (i.e. earthquakes)?
In India there are many examples of earthquake-resistant structures, especially in the Himalayas, where timber and stone have been used together effectively. However, India’s current urbanization, with the cost of land rising and only tiny plots available for low-income dwellers, leaves only one option: going vertical. Settlements one storey high 10 years ago are now full of three- and four-storey buildings.
The other critical factors are materials used and construction method. Poorly designed RC (reinforced concrete) frames, with fired clay brick walls, constitute the majority of these buildings. The problem is that RC structures require design input from engineers, who, along with architects, are not working in low-income settlements.
There is a dramatic difference between a well-engineered structure and one that is not. Sometimes adding one column in the whole structure can make the difference. These units are built by masons and builders without technical knowledge. Often the basics of construction are not respected.
Because for different reasons—social and economic being the most relevant—architects and engineers are not serving these neighborhoods, we all need to find an alternative solution to address the problem. Especially given that these self-built settlements house over 60% of people in Indian cities. Cities, in particular informal settlements, are growing at steady peace with higher and higher multi-storey buildings.
One positive note is that large-scale impact could come from simple interventions: dissemination of information on safe building practices, and more mason training for construction teams that work in informal settlements. The government should play a key role in this. Furthermore, a simpler building code and monitoring system should be implemented, since the current system doesn’t even work in formal settlements. All this requires an accountable government willing to take responsibility and invest in safety.
The cost of inaction is almost impossible to estimate.
I am utterly and completely convinced that liberal thought is the only way forward for the human civilization. And yet, when I see the growing power of radical elements around me and how their simplistic solutions have enticed so many intelligent, educated people, I wonder if human beings are simply bent on self-destruction, as a race!
A few ideas from this weekend’s editorial pieces struck me as interesting in this context. The Hindustan Times carried a set of articles on radicalization in India and it did not make for pretty reading. Educated people are turning on this path of blood boiling hate and cold-blooded planning of destruction. Whatever they may be, Islamic jihad or Hindu terror, they are making the world less safe with each passing day.
This idea of radicalisation of society is scary indeed and seems to be happening in the entire subcontinental context. I have not had a lot of time to read up on what’s been happening in Bangladesh and Taslima Nasrin’s piece “Why I support Shahbag” came at the right time. To offer a background, protestors in huge numbers were out on the streets in Bangladesh to demand the death penalty for a 1971 war criminal called Abdul Kader Mollah. Mollah, like many war criminals, is an Islamist. Protestors fear that Mollah, who is currently serving a life sentence, will be freed if the Jamaat-e-Islami came to power. And hence the demand for the death sentence. In a nation that is being rapidly Islamicised, the Shahbagh protests stand out in their demand for banning an Islamist organisation like the Jamaat.
This is happening at a time when liberal voices are being ruthlessly suppressed in Bangladesh and atheist bloggers have even been killed for their views. By labelling the protestors at Shahbagh as ‘atheist’, Nasrin writes, Islamists are trying to make pious Muslims who are part of the protest uncomfortable. Protestors are caught between believing in the legitimacy of their demands and proving themselves to be believers! The paragraph below from this piece resonates strongly with me in the context of what is happening around us in India. You could replace Bangladesh with India and Islam with Hinduism and this would still hold true!
“It is very alarming that the word ‘atheist’ is being considered as a filthy, obscene word in Bangladesh, and the liberal people refrain from doing anything in support of the freedom of expression of atheists. They must know that Islam should not be exempt from the critical scrutiny that applies to other religions as well; in their mind, they must understand that Islam has to go through an enlightenment process similar to what other world religions have already gone through, by questioning the inhuman, unequal, unscientific and irrational aspects of religion.”
Which brings me to one the strongest arguments I have against the Hindutva sort of religious extremism. If we are so critical of another religion’s extremist tendencies, then we really ought to evaluate why we are heading in the same direction. I sincerely hope we are not, though the chain of hate mails below even the slightest criticism of Hindutva extremist thinking is worrying indeed.
As for me, I am as close to being an atheist as anyone can be, without actually taking the plunge. To me, the concept of God and religion is a cultural one and the world is richer for its varied cultures, isn’t it? I find it unbelievable that we fight so much over something so abstract, but in reality the fights are about the deepest aspect of human greed-access to wealth and resources- and religion seems to hold the key to power and identity, which in turn are channels to achieve material goals.