In the area known as Moulivakkam, the catchment area for the nearby Porur lake and Adyar river, the construction of two 11-storey towers of Prime Sristi Housing Ltd, named ‘Belief’ and ‘Faith’, should have raised many eyebrows.
There are no other highrise buildings in the area. Permission for highrises is not easily given, as the soil does not support heavy construction, according to the initial assessment made by the Public Works Department.
But no one objected, and when ‘Faith’ collapsed on Saturday, both the builder and the authorities blamed “natural causes”. The death toll has climbed steadily in the five days since then, and on Thursday, Public Health Director K Kulandaisamy confirmed 60 deaths, a third of them women.
On Thursday, Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa set up a one-man commission headed by Justice (retd) R Reghupathy to “find out whose ignorant attitude resulted in such a mishap”, PTI reported.
And people in the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) and Public Works Department (PWD) are now beginning to ask why permission was given to the unknown building firm of Madurai-based M Manohar for such a highrise project in that area.
“This was Prime Sristi’s first venture in Chennai. He (builder Manohar) is new and unknown in the city. He has done some projects in Madurai, and the safety and stability of those structures is being scrutinized now,” a CMDA official involved in the relief effort at the site said on Thursday.
The official added, “Before allowing an unknown builder to construct two 11-storey buildings, CMDA should have properly scrutinized the architect’s plans and the structural engineer’s reports. There should have been periodic checks to assess the quality of construction, because it is such a big project.”
CMDA’s Member Secretary A Karthik passed the buck to the architect and structural engineer hired by the builder. “As per CMDA’s records, the building plans are perfect and there is no reason to blame us. Once the construction starts, the onus is on the architect and structural engineer to monitor whether construction is going on according to their plans or not, the quality of material being used, and whether there are any transgressions,” he said.
“The CMDA has no role to play in this. After completion, when the builder applies for a completion certificate, we send our team to inspect the quality of construction etc., and if all is well, we give a non-objection certificate for power and water supply,” Karthik added.
The builder got NOCs from the revenue department and fire and emergency services, but not from the PWD.
Karthik said there was no proof that the area is, or ever was, a wetland or catchment area, on the basis of which permission for a highrise could have been denied.
However, state government records show that in December 2005, residential societies in Mugalivakkam, which is 2 km from Moulivakkam, and Mannapakkam, were in three feet of water because encroachments at Moulivakkam had prevented the flow of rainwater.
In November 2006, an eviction drive was launched after encroachments near the Porur lake flooded Moulivakkam and neighbouring Mugalivakkam.
Police say the architect named by the builder is not qualified to practise, the papers submitted to CMDA bear the signature of another individual, and the structural engineer claims he planned according to the design.
“The builder claims Vijay Bargotra is the architect but he is not registered with the Council of Architecture, which is a must,” a police officer said. “Bargotra’s firm prepared the designs, but another qualified architect P Sukanya’s signature appears on the design submitted to CMDA, and she has no clue how it happened. So no one knows whose design it is. The structural engineer S Nagesh simply says he planned according to the design and left it to the contractor,” the officer said.
A case has been registered at Mangadu police station and Assistant Commissioner of Police P Subramany is investigating. Prime Sristi’s owner, 60-year-old M Manohar, and his son Muthu Manohar have been arrested, along with the architect, the structural engineer and two contractors.
According to police, builder Manohar is a former bank clerk who has no qualification to be a civil engineer. “He was a clerk in a nationalised bank and took VRS. Then he launched this Prime Sristi three years ago and this was his first project outside Chennai,” another police officer said.
At the site of the mishap, the tower that still stands looks odd even to lay eyes. The pillars seem too thin, and the structure seems delicately balanced. The Tamil Nadu Fire and Emergency Services, which was the first to reach the spot, initially expressed apprehension that this tower too might collapse, but took a chance and started the rescue operations.
“We hope that the rescue work will be fully completed by evening tomorrow,” PTI quoted DIG, National Disaster Response Force, S P Selvan, as saying on Thursday.