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Savar, Thane, Delhi- Continuing building collapses and our moral imperative

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.

The Rana Plaza collapse was the worst industrial disaster in Bangladesh's history.: Photo courtesy of

The Rana Plaza collapse was the worst industrial disaster in Bangladesh’s history.: Photo courtesy of

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.

Jalti Jhopdi: More thoughts on improving shelter for impermanent settlements- April 3, 2012

Coincidentally, as I was wracking my head to find some way we could contribute to better living conditions at the firestruck jhuggi, Global Urbanist posted an article on a shack fire in Cape Town. There too, they are seeking appropriate ways to rebuild; however, it was heartening to read that Cape Town’s municipality had a disaster relief department that provided 3 days of food and basic kit for the poor to rebuild. Here in Gurgaon, the government response to such incidents is negligible. Leave alone failed systems, I feel this is a reflection of a loss of basic human empathy. Jhuggi residents are classified as ‘migrants’ and the local government wants to take no responsibility for them whatsoever. So, as Arti, who is part of the team working on the Jalti Jhopdi project, the only long term solution to get givernment attention to these transient jhuggis is to get migrants on the voter list here in Gurgaon.

Arti and me went back to the jhuggi today to inform residents about the timing of the distribution we will do tomorrow of utensils, chappals for kids, mosquito nets and earthen pots. One bit of the jhuggi has acquired tin sheets for walls and have built cardboard and tarpaulin roofs. The other half are still struggling, using torn saris etc as walls for now as they wait for the contractor to mobilize more material. Mud kilns (chulhas) have been built and those who had resources have bought some bare necessities and begun cooking, some have created the traditional mud floor, thus leveling the ground to spread sheets or other floor material; but the struggle is still on. Regular life is far from restored and we hope the distribution tomorrow will help. We managed today to get a shamiana tent done on one side to shelter the children from the daytime sun; but the ground underneath it isn’t level, so unfortunately people may or may not sleep under it tonight.

Coming back to the shelter issues, there are a few serious concerns. One, there is not enough space between the jhuggis to prevent another fire. In fact, the only jhuggi that was isolated from the rest was able to douse out the fire and was only half burnt. Obviously, they were the first back on their feet!

Insulation is the next big issue. As of now, cardboard and tarpaulin roofs offer no insulation at all and the tin walls ensure that the jhugis are heat traps. We quizzed them about housing back home in Bengal. In their villages, they said they build mud walls and have now use tin sheets for roofing as opposed to the traditional thatch which is hard to maintain. However, to protect their homes from heat, they create a false ceiling inside with bamboo or thatch, which they fill with mud to create a cool interior. the air gap between the false ceiling and the tin is the insulating layer. They were unwilling to do this for their jhuggis because they perceive themselves as migrants with a transient existence here and are unwilling to invest in their homes. Never mind some of them have been here for over six years!

Clearly, some sort of community mobilization (perhaps in the form of self-help groups for specific objectives) would be needed for life to improve in jhuggis such as this, but this will not be easy in settlements where there is a high turnover of occupants. We need to think about what can be the right interventions for transient jhuggis such as these, where occupants have absolutely no tenure, where there is little community feel, where residents feel like outsiders, have no legal status and no government help is forthcoming; where anything but temporary dwellings will not be built because residents are not interested in investing and because land owners will be threatened by more pukka structures, resulting in eviction.

We need to have solutions for better housing and sanitation for jhuggis like this that exist all over the country and especially in rapidly urbanizing areas like Gurgaon where the need for cheap labour is fulfilled only by migrant populations. Just like governments expect builders to pay development charges for bringing municipal services to their developments, local governments must take responsibility to provide quality temporary housing on rent to migrants who are essential to the local economy. These are people that play a vital role for Gurgaon. We saw during the Commonwealth Games when migrants were chased away, how the city was crippled. They deserve better. How can we help?

In the process of rebuilding

Mud floor freshly made

Life goes in the heat and dust

Purple boots? Seriously? I asked them who would be wearing those and they got the joke!!


Do you really feel as good as you feel? Feb 5, 2012

Today’s blog is following up on yesterday’s post about salons and looking good and after reading Nupur’s comment about how salons are about making us feel good, much beyond the looks……I would go as far as saying that the popularity of parlors, gadgets, retail therapy and a zillion other status-related things we crave for in modern, especially urban (but not strictly so) societies have a lot to do with our shrinking confidence in ourselves as people.

Looking around, I suspect we all seek confirmation in our success from external sources and hence the dramatic increase in material consumption, but also consumption of another kind–the spiritual. Whether stress therapy, spirituality, religion or a pursuit of mentors and gurus, more of us are attracted to the idea of being guided by forces we perceive as beyond us and more powerful than us.

Is it because we don’t want to ask ourselves the tough questions and worse, not take decisions for ourselves?

Do we really need to be in the rat race, or do we need the rat race so we have parameters by which we can compare ourselves with others? Isn’t it comparison that offers us a basis for considering ourselves better, improved, more successful? And if so, what when we find ourselves lacking? We perceive that as failure and go into a cycle of guilt and low-esteem. Which brings us back to the point of seeking easy solutions to break out of that cycle all over again!

I’m as much a victim of this repetitive cycle as anyone else. And I must confess that as long as life is good and the status quo acceptable, I do not feel a particular desire to break this cycle. When the chips are down though, the doubts return…..and I do know the tough questions need to be asked!

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