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Illegal construction: Why Thane building collapse was a disaster waiting to happen

The Thursday’s Mumbra building collapse, killing 38 and injuring scores, has all the routine elements - it was illegal, it was on a land on which the builder had no rights, activists claim they asked for action much earlier, and the civic administration insisting that two notices had been sent.

There has been a lapse at every level, going by what CNN-IBN said this afternoon. The Thane civic chief was quoted as saying that since the land—it's in the heart of the suburb—belonged to the forest department they had been intimated.

Obviously none chose to act. Each life lost is a testimony to this negligence.

Civilians and fire brigade personnel carry out rescue operation at the building collapse site bat Mumbra in Thane on Thursday. PTI

Civilians and fire brigade personnel carry out rescue operation at the building collapse site bat Mumbra in Thane on Thursday. PTI

But this tragedy, not the first in Thane City’s history, has some other marked features indicating a new modus operandi to beat the law. Even before the building was being built at a frenetic pace, people were allowed to occupy it to thwart any possible demolition. Those who were given places did not have to pay rent; they just paid for electricity.

By stocking it with people, desperately hungry for housing, on an assumption they could be later evicted using muscle once buyers came in after it was all done, the builder apparently had a belief that the human angle could ward off the bulldozers though political connivance.

Speed of construction was not just a matter of the builder’s efficiency but a ruse to get it done with and escape responsibility. It appears that the building’s each slab was poured in five days flat, that is, it went up by a floor every five days. But even two-three months is not so short that it put a mote in the civic body’s eyes.

Mumbra is the biggest pocket of illicit construction activity in Thane City. If Ghodbunder Road and adjoining areas are the magnet for the genteel that are just able to meet the increasing prices, then Mumbra is a place where the blue-collared flock. The flow has been stronger there since Mumbai’s riots of the early 1990s.

The tide of migrants unable to afford anything elsewhere gave rise to this massive illegal construction industry in this part of Thane, which the more reputed builders have avoided. The appetite for cheap housing could be judged by this statistic: in 1991, the census put Mumbra’s population at 44,000; last year, the estimate was of 'several lakhs'.

That suburb which takes Thane City’s spread toward Kalyan and Navi Mumbai’s Sheel, does not even have a record of paying electricity bills. Quite some of it is even stolen which forces the power distributor to impose long spells of power shutdowns on the principle that areas with high losses suffer the most blackouts.

Sure, Mumbra is not a pleasant place to live in. Most banks and credit card companies have put that place on their blacklist. Even if you were well-heeled, chances are a credit card would be less likely ever to vend its way into the wallet. Housing loans, on the same premise, are scarce.

This has two sides. Since chances of structures being illegal are high, the housing mortgage industry stays away. Since they are cold to the place, housing has to be from one’s own resources and prices are sought to be kept low by commandeering anyone’s especially state land. The pay-offs to politicians and officials are less than the land cost. Quality is never a consideration in these circumstances. Collapses should be no surprise.

If one were to look at the allocations for development to this burgeoning suburb, overcrowded, almost unplanned except for its main parts, full of garbage, stigmatised by the police tendency to think all terror fugitives could hide there, was once described by Maharashtra Times as Thane’s ‘step city’.

In short, it is Thane’s boondocks. The city’s administration gives it a cursory, if that, attention. It is a place about which no one cared.

It is not that Thane Municipal Corporation is perennially a mute spectator to these illegal structures coming up. From time to time, they are pulled down in what its civic chief, as quoted in a news report, constitutes "a limited warfare". In 2009, some 700 structures were brought down. In 2012, some 160 notices were issued.

Illegal constructions are a rage in Thane and illegalities encompass the following: building without civic approvals, building on a land not supposed to be built upon, building beyond the permissible floors. Of course, slums are the most which fall in these categories. And if such structures galore across the city, Mumbra-Kausa region is a virtual haven for them.

Such mischief is not confined to Mumbra-Kausa. When Sairaj Apartments caved in in 1998—it was a structure built on a nallah—yes, a nallah—the world woke up to the extent of the civic machinery, politicians and officials, being on the take. An official probe, known as the Nandalal Committee, lifted the veil, and named people, but the rot persists, morphing into a set tradition.

However, the 'illegal' label is mostly applied to the shanties that are coming up, which by the last educated estimate by knowledgeable people, house 40 percent of the population. Slums, however, are any city’s scourge from the city planning perspective. Demolition of concrete structures is a small proportion of the total. This collapsed building caved in on its own.