The recent collapse of two buildings in Chennai and New Delhi has once again highlighted the issue of structural stability and the lack of enforcement of rules and codes by municipal bodies and developmental authorities. While several buildings that have collapsed were unauthorised structures, the Chennai incident raises questions how the construction process is monitored. According to reports, the developer of the high-rise allegedly deviated from the originally sanctioned structural design and made modifications, putting the structural stability of the building at grave risk.
This highlights one major lacuna in the regulation of construction activity. Municipal bodies are tasked with approving building plans and checking for compliance with development control regulations such as the FSI/FAR norms, coastal zone regulations and also matters such as the plan providing for mandatory vacant spaces etc.
However, the structural design is one area that is mostly self-regulatory. This differs from the building plan that is made by an architect and approved by the municipal authority. A qualified structural engineer vets the design from the point of structural stability that looks at several factors such as location of the project, soil quality, seismic zone classification etc. Development authorities such as the Noida Authority have rules in place where the structural design has to be examined and certified by IIT Delhi.
“While the structural design has to be certified by a qualified structural engineer, the liability of the engineer is restricted to only the design. Suppose the structure collapses, the engineer can be held liable only for the design, that is, if an investigation reveals design flaws and he as an engineer passed them,” says PSN Rao, Professor, School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi.
There is little monitoring into whether the developer has used the appropriate materials that are needed according to the structural design, so that the building is stable. “Once the concrete is poured in, there is no way to verify whether building materials of the right specifications were used,” says Rao.
AK Mishra, former secretary, ministry of housing and urban poverty alleviation, who during this term in office piloted the Real Estate Regulatory Bill, says that while the authorities are under obligation to check the structural design and see whether the construction complies with the rules, smaller municipalities may not have the manpower to monitor and enforce regulations.
“This is an area which the development authority has to dwell into as there are lot of multi-storeyed residential and commercial buildings coming up. While established developers follow the norms and give the names of their designers, structural engineers, consultants upfront, many smaller companies do not follow that," said Mishra.
“Codes require that the quality of construction is in conformity with the standards as laid out by the Public Works Department and relevant Indian standard specifications and codes as included in the National Building Code of India. There is no explicit and effective mechanism to monitor this aspect,” says Anil Sawhney, Associate Dean and Director, School of Construction, RICS School of Built Environment.
“The primary focus, however, is given to code compliance and design vetting. We need to start considering the quality of construction as an important aspect. Both are intertwined issues and are of extreme importance as they have implications on public safety,” adds Sawhney.
The Bill as introduced in the Rajya Sabha has sought to address this by introducing two important clauses. “The first is that all developers have to upfront declare the name of their structural engineer and second, that if there is a structural defect in the building within two years of handing over the possession, the developer will have to rectify it,” added Mishra.
“Structural quality assurance of a construction is still a largely self-regulatory process in India. In high profile projects, the builder engages the services of reputed project managers and consultants while the less organised builder rarely follows any regulation which is not mandatory or which comes at a cost,” says Sanjay Dutt, Executive Managing Director – South Asia, Cushman and Wakefield, a real estate consultancy.
The extent of monitoring too varies across municipal bodies. For example, in Mumbai, a high-rise structure is given commencement certificates at several stages of the project. It could mean permission for the first few floors. The municipal authorities then inspect the building under development to see if rules have been followed. Only then is permission given for the next set of floors. There are several cases of high-rise developments in Mumbai that have been stalled as authorities discovered violations and unauthorised alterations and did not give the green signal for building additional floors.
When contacted, Getambar Anand, President-Elect, Credai, told The Indian Express that there is no regulatory gap and said, citing the case of Noida, that all developers in that market get the structural certification from IIT Delhi as has been mandated by the Noida Authority.
"While the developers get the structural design vetted by IIT Delhi or other leading institutions, the authorities are not checking it on ground,” says Abhay Kumar, CMD, Griha Pravesh Buildteck, a Noida-based developer.
This points to the need for bringing the construction and real estate industry up to par with world standards.
Sawhney calls for a system on the lines of Singapore’s Construction Quality Assessment System, launced in 1989, which serves as a standard assessment system on building quality. “The assessment consists of three main components: structural works, architectural works and building services works. India needs a system like this that helps all stakeholders to work in unison to achieve the highest quality standards,” says Sawhney.
He cites the case of the United States where the local authority conducts 10-12 inspections over the lifecycle of a building. “In India this can be done by licensed third-party inspectors.”
“The responsibility of the structural stability lies with the authority but the periodic checks that should happen from the Authority's side never takes place,” says Kunal Ravi Singh, the advocate for the buyers in the recent Supertech case.
Construction quality is also becoming a primary concern among buyers moving into their newly-built apartments. With no monitoring mechanism in place to reassure residents, it is the fledgling resident welfare association or the cooperative housing society that has to figure out ways to treat the seepage problem, their first major challenge.