The recent collapse of a multi-storeyed building under construction made headline news. While most of the media focussed on the terrible tragedy that took several lives, very few bothered to comment on the reasons for such a disaster having taken place. It has everything to do with an administration that has stopped being proactive. The construction industry, and much else in our city, is in a self-governance mode: Those who wish to abide by rules can choose to do so, the rest need not, until they commit an error of judgement and are exposed.

The building in question was not an illegal one. The promoters had sanction for building two blocks of eleven floors each. Such structures need to have soil certification to be done for ensuring load bearing capacity before work begins. This is usually obtained from a certified soil mechanics engineer and the document is one of the prerequisites for obtaining approval from the CMDA for going ahead with the construction. Since the developers under question had obtained CMDA sanction, it goes without saying that they had soil mechanics certification as well. Yet, the building collapsed. It is now rumoured that the structure fell because it was built on the bed of a lake without proper reinforcements. How could that be if the soil had been found suitable?

A high profile enquiry has been launched and heads in official circles might well roll. But it is unlikely that anyone will bring up the root cause for all this trouble – neither the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), which gives approval, nor the Corporation, which monitors construction, can enforce any discipline. Both have long given up on this task. Thus we have a situation where every plan looks perfect on paper, but when executed the construction deviates considerably from what was approved. There is nobody to check these variances while the construction is in progress. True, builders are supposed to obtain a completion certificate once the structure is ready for occupation. That appears to be the easiest document to get. This is proved by the number of illegal constructions and extra unapproved floors in the city – all with electricity and water connections, which cannot be obtained without completion certificates.

Fire safety is yet another issue. Most public buildings and several private residential apartments appear to have no preventive mechanisms of any kind. Multiple exits, assembly points, basic fire-fighting equipment, and ease of access for firemen and hydrants are all absent. Yet, such buildings are allowed to be constructed. The lack of fire safety is highlighted only when a major disaster strikes. Here again, the approving authorities are to blame. Apart from the Fire Department, the Corporation, which monitors buildings under construction, rarely notices if set offs are provided for as mandated by the rules. These are not just for making a building look pretty – they are needed for easy accessibility of all parts of a structure in the event of a conflagration. Unfortunately, these are overlooked completely, which is why we have so many buildings constructed in close proximity to each other and often usurping public land as well.

All this does not show the administration in good light. That apart, if this apathy is allowed to continue we are going to see several more such incidents in the near future. More evidence of an international city in the making?