A pack of cards

Apr 6, 2013, IBNLive

A recent print commercial by the home loan arm of an Indian multinational highlights why we all buy homes – to build memories, to have a sense of stability. On Thursday, this sense of stability literally came crashing down for several residents in a Mumbra building. The collapse of the months old building is the biggest building collapse tragedy in recent times in the state.

The visuals of the collapse took me back however to one of the first such tragedies that I ever covered as a rookie reporter – the Laxmichaya building collapse in Borivali. 30 people had died then. A jeweller on the ground floor had undertaken illegal renovations which weakened pillars of that building. We had done several reports on how if you have the moolah and the necessary influence, you can bend building construction rules to your advantage. Almost 6 years later, nothing has changed that.

Residents of the Mumbra locality explained the unholy nexus to us. A builder colludes with municipal officials who turn a blind eye to the building coming up under their nose. But officials know if the irregularity is found, the building will have to be demolished and they also have to save their jobs in the process. So these corrupt officials then ask the builder to hurry up the construction before any complaint is filed. When the building is partially complete the builder starts giving it out on rent, the people already staying there are the builder’s insurance against demolition and the official can also claim human interest and convince higher ups to not take action.

Infact, there is a logic to this modus operandi. In 2006, the state government regularised a large number of houses in Ulhasnagar citing humanitarian grounds as many people had already been living there. 63000 buildings in Kalyan-Dombivali are said to be illegal and residents have lost rights to those homes. Around 20000 buildings in Mumbai and Thane were declared forest land and hence illegal in retrospect after a decades old ‘mistake’ in files was discovered. In all these cases, little action has been taken against the errant officials.

When we spoke to survivors of the Mumbra crash who owned flats in the building, there were a few who said they did not know anything about occupancy certificates or any such procedures. The building looked fine and ‘normal’ so they moved in. But many others told us that the sole reason they moved in was that the builder was giving the flats on rent to them for 500 rupees. The going rate in the area was 1500 and many moved in to save on the steep rents. A couple of families were given free housing. The builder hoped to eventually sell these flats off after ‘regularising’ the building citing humanitarian grounds. The state government is at the moment considering a comprehensive law to regularise illegal buildings, a sign of times to come.

But its not just these illegal buildings that collapse. Every year before monsoons, the municipal corporation of Mumbai and the state housing authority come up with a list of dangerous buildings that could collapse anytime. These are primarily old, dinghy buildings and people choose to stay there rather than hand the place over to redevelopment because they are painfully aware of the rampant corruption in building construction. They fear once handed over, they may forever lose the place.

Year after year as we cover these collapses, the images that keep us awake for days after that, are those of faces mourning the loss of the one thing that kept them grounded in a life filled with uncertainty. At times I have seen survivors refusing to move from the crash site, just staring blankly at what once was. Some want to speak in front of the camera in the hope some authority, some NGO, anyone might come forward to lessen their burden. Yet others do not know whether to cry or to be angry. And then there are others running around to complete formalities at hospitals. The things that need to be done are so many and the grief numbs them so much they just move their limbs mechanically. It takes every bit of professionalism to see people suffering so much and talk about these things ‘objectively’ in front of the camera, to present facts with a hope that something might change. And yet sometimes when you see those desolate faces you feel a tinge of guilt for being somewhat better off while they are going through the biggest crisis in their lives.

But the administration seems to be untouched by frequent stark tragedies like this. While the customary heads roll every time a tragedy of this magnitude takes place, there doesn’t seem to be any genuine remorse in the administration. A few visits to the site later, life goes back to normal in the corridors of power while the lives of survivors become as empty as the crash site cleared of all the rubble.

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