Delhi – Scratch the Surface and the Horrors unfold

Delhi – Scratch the Surface and the Horrors unfold

Dikshu C Kukreja
nnBy Dikshu C KukrejannIf we analyse the incident of a major fire in Delhi’s Bawana Industrial Area which resulted in killing of 17 people, including 10 women, on Saturday last and the Kamla Mills fire in Mumbai recently, we find that it is not just fire-safety, but norms regarding ventilation, crowd control, waste disposal and health and hygiene which are also being flouted by restaurants. The capital of a country which is a proud member of the illustrious club of the most powerful G20 nations, with a fast advancing economy poised to become the 3rd largest in the world and celebrated as the world’s largest democracy, seem to be sitting on a time bomb! Scratch the surface and the horrors unfold.nnIn the 70 years since independence, we have created a built environment which is only turning out to be unlivable. It doesn’t surprise us anymore when Delhi is now referred to as a ‘gas chamber’. Time after time the local bodies have miserably failed to deliver. The Master Plan of Delhi created by DDA has a 20-year horizon. 10 years elapse before the Masterplan actually gets even notified which is the official milestone for it to be an enforceable document. This document prepared in the hallowed halls of the ivory tower of Vikas Minar is as far from ground reality as one can imagine. The Master Plan fails to recognise the needs of the citizens, the challenges of urban migration, the changing socio-economic patterns. It resorts to populist measures (read vote bank populism) by recognising and thereby encouraging ugly islands of the unbuilt environment such as ‘lal dora’ areas and illegal colonies.nnAdding to the misery is the performance of local municipal bodies like the MCD which has failed to deliver basic civic services such as water supply, drainage, roads, street lights etc. Whether we trifurcate or multifurcate MCD into as many pieces as the political masters want the situation remains the same. Amidst all this, whenever a mishappening occurs, a person falling to death in an open manhole, biker skidding to his death over a pothole, hundreds dying due to mosquito breeding, these tragedies simply become statistics to be compared Year on Year.nnWe remain oblivious to the lurking disasters waiting to happen in case of an earthquake or fire. Almost 90% of our buildings in Delhi are not meeting safety norms for fire or earthquake. And all these things happen when the solutions are well within our reach. A safety audit at the grass root level should be carried out and buildings can be categorised into different safety levels. Measures can then be taken to incorporate the safety provisions as per latest bylaws and technology available.nnWe fail to recognise that it is not enough to design buildings which are world class and pass through the lenses of various statutory authorities to ensure compliance to bye-laws. The real problem is that these buildings have hardly any upkeep and slowly over time start falling apart and becoming unsafe. It is, therefore, necessary that we frame guidelines to ensure that buildings are regularly maintained. Audits must be carried out and safety certificates issued over time. Just like we have to get regular pollution checks on our vehicles even though the cars might be swanky when new, buildings age and require proper upkeep. Our built environment consisting of buildings with shared ownership whether residential, offices, retail or any other fall apart because some users play truant and do not contribute to maintenance charges.nnA reasonable sinking fund must be created for any new construction which is controlled by the elected society representatives. Laws should be introduced to deal with irresponsible owners who find excuses not to contribute. The system of tax incentives and penalties can be created with respect to the upkeep of buildings and yardstick introduced to measure the ‘health’ of the building. If we wish to live in a healthy environment we need to ensure that our built habitat is healthy. As a society, we need to understand the importance of upkeep of our built environment and not simply focus on the new lot being created. Any machine created in the most advanced industry or any child born in the most advanced hospital can only remain in top condition if they are nurtured well. Similarly, our buildings can only survive healthily if we maintain them properly.nnThere are innumerable cases where the solution lies with the government requiring to take the initiative. Take for instance the case of Khan Market which is supposed to be the most expensive retail space not only in the country but Asia. There has been enough written on the restaurants and commercial activity on the upper floors being unsafe. The government even came up with the policy of converting the residential upper floors to commercial on payment of handsome conversion charges. Why a comprehensive solution can?t be implemented from the enormous funds collected to make the upper floors safe. An external walkway serving as a Fire escape and running along the length of the market is one simple solution. There are many successful examples of such shop cum homes being converted into great retail centers in Singapore, Hong Kong, Europe and US. We only need a will to implement or then are we going to wait for another Kamala Mills to take place snatching precious lives.nnIf we analyse both the incidents of Bawana and Kamla Mills fire in Delhi and Mumbai recently, we find that it is not just fire safety, but norms regarding ventilation, crowd control, waste disposal and health and hygiene which are also being flouted by restaurants. And Delhi is also no different in this regard. Most restaurants are allowed in spaces which were never originally designed for that use, such as Hauz Khas Village, Khan Market and the mills in Mumbai. At the individual level, restaurant owners must comply with the conditions of the National Building Code. These rules are being flouted easily since the restaurant operators know they can get away with it. The poor legislation is a major cause for this.nn(Writer Dikshu C Kukreja is one of the top Architect, Designer, Planner and Thought Leader on Town planning in India.)nn 

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