Did violations ever go away? No, they did not. But what is sad is that despite a conflagration of mammoth proportions that happened just a year back, none, ranging from builder to the authorities, has learnt a single lesson. It is left to the citizens to bear all the risks and also to protest, very much in vain.
When in 2017, the fire swept through the seven floors of a popular retailer dealing in silk, a Minister went on record to say that the building had been in gross violation of all permits even since it was built in 2000. The original sanction had been for ground plus four floors, what came up in reality was a structure of seven floors. This was constructed in full public view and yet the authorities remained oblivious of the violations. Thereafter, there ensued the usual process of going to court over the extra floors. Here again, despite orders for demolition of the additional and unapproved levels, the builder obtained a stay and carried on business merrily for a decade and more. That was until the fire came along.
There was a wave of self-righteousness in the immediate aftermath. Bureaucrats decried the way buildings had violated norms in T’ Nagar and elsewhere. The Fire Department bemoaned the fact that such structures cut off all access in the event of any major disaster. It was a wonder that no life was lost in the fire, they said. The store owner said he had violated norms and so would bring down the structure (there was not much of it left standing anyway). The public, many of them regular customers of this violator, wrote long posts in social media on how such businessmen thrive.
Everyone was agreed that the retailer, if he did construct a new building, would put up a model structure in full compliance of all regulations. They little knew what a builder-bureaucrat nexus can achieve. All of a sudden, a nine-floor structure, inclusive of basement, has come up in the same place. And, what is more, work began on the construction even before the builder filed for approvals, so sure was the retailer that everything would fall into place. The papers were submitted in May and the authorities, with an alacrity that they do not display when more humble citizens apply for permissions, immediately gave the go-ahead. That was in June. And immediately thereafter the builder announced that he had completed 40 per cent of the work – within a month of obtaining approval! Anyone would think that Chennai was a foreign city if this efficiency is anything to go by.
The residents of T’ Nagar are up in arms. Firstly, how is it that a structure, which was permitted to have four floors in 2000 can have nine in 2018? In what way has the area become less congested or less at risk for those living nearby? Secondly, given the manner in which the fire raged and consumed many kilolitres of water for being extinguished, how is it that approvals were so readily given? The Commissioner of the Corporation has himself lamented about the way illegal structures are proliferating in the city and the Court has come down heavily on the matter. And yet, no damages or fines were inflicted on the retailer.
Last heard, the matter has been brought to the notice of the Court, which, displaying its legendary patience and restraint, has issued a stay on the construction. But that is least likely to deter the owner or officialdom, both of whom will ensure that the building eventually will come up, as planned, and not as per permits.