The family is restless. Every few hours, Dhirendra Singh and his wife Babita wake up, wondering if their fourth-floor home shook a little. Their paranoia is justifiable — just last week, two buildings in their neighbourhood in Greater Noida’s Shahberi village collapsed, killing nine people, including a 14-month-old girl.
When they first saw the flat in 2016, the future seemed bright. The village offered relatively cheaper housing options, with a 2BHK flat for Rs 21 lakh — about half of what it would cost to live in high-rise societies nearby. Travel time to Singh’s Greater Noida office came down to half-an-hour — considerably less than what it would take for him to commute from Naraina in Delhi, where they stayed on rent for Rs 10,000 a month.
After weighing his options, Singh opted for a flat in Mahaveer Homes 2. The builder promised him an “earthquake-resistant building”; a reinforced concrete-framed structure designed by “qualified engineers”; and basic amenities such as a sewerage system and smooth roads.
Singh was elated. “The building was ready, but final touches were left. The builder said drains, roads and other infrastructure would be ready in 6-12 months. Within five months of seeing the flat, in March 2017, we moved in,” he said.
More than a year later, the four-storey building has no drain or sewerage system, with waste water accumulating around homes, seeping into the ground and, residents believe, weakening the foundation.
There is no concrete path connecting the building to the main road, which means a drive through water and mud during monsoon. The bathroom tiles have begun to crack, said the family, adding that pipes are leaking as well. “We are almost always covered in mosquito bites,” said Singh.
These problems don’t find mention in the builder’s glossy brochure, whose motto is: “We deliver quality”. An artist’s impression of the property on the cover has an Audi parked on the porch — with a Colombia registration plate. The builder could not be reached for a comment.
Hundreds of flats like the one owned by Singh populate the skyline of the 150-hectare Shahberi village, which has a population of 1,177 — 636 men and 541 women — according to the 2011 Census. However, locals estimate that around 10,000 people currently stay in the village.
Most names bear a striking similarity to housing societies surrounding the village, where buying a home is just out of reach — JP Hite, Freedom Residency, Gulmohar Home, Excellent Residency, Future Tech Homes 3 and Mayur County, to name a few.
Most homes are purchased on EMI — Singh took a Rs 15 lakh loan from GIC Housing Finance Limited. For the next 20 years, he will pay Rs 14,959 per month. His current salary: Rs 30,000.
A former loan agent explained how a home loan is sanctioned — beginning with the builder approaching a branch manager to advertise his property. “If the manager is satisfied with the project, he forwards it to an agent. This is where the builder brings home buyers into the equation. An advocate examines property papers and writes a report on the status of the title deed. The customer’s economic background is examined, a civil engineer conducts a technical test of the property, and a manager does a physical check. Only after all this does the manager sanction a loan.”
The two Shahberis
Between the maze of more than 100-odd buildings, remnants of what Shahberi once was still linger. The village is still inhabited by around a hundred families, who lived here far before agricultural land was replaced by high-rises.
A resident sits on a charpoy swatting flies, inside the pink-walled house she has lived in for three decades of her married life, sharing space with buffaloes her family rears for a living. “The agricultural land belonged to a baniya (trader) in Delhi, and he grew wheat and jowar here. People did labour work or reared animals, and they still do. It was around 2000 that plotting of land began and people from outside started building houses. But the tall buildings started coming up much more recently,” she said.
Nearly 10 years ago, Shahberi village — located in what was then called Noida Extension — was at the centre of controversy when its farmers went to court asking that their land be returned to them. The Greater Noida Industrial Development Authority (GNIDA) had acquired land from them in 2009 by paying what farmers called a “paltry sum”.
Farmer Sant Singh, for instance, received Rs 2 crore for 80 bighas. On May 12, 2011, the Allahabad High Court directed the government to return 156 hectares of land, which was acquired in the name of “planned industrial development of Greater Noida”.
The state government appealed against the HC decision in the Supreme Court, but the apex court upheld the order.
Almost immediately after the court orders, people started selling their land to private builders. Take, for instance, khasra number 5 — a piece of land measuring 1.65 hectares. It was first sold on June 26, 2012. Since then, the land has been divided into many smaller parts and sold many times. Currently, there are 154 sales deeds executed on this piece of land.
The property boom is also reflected in the registry department’s records obtained by The Indian Express: 218 sale deeds were registered in the village in April this year; 217 in May; and 206 in June. Within three months, 641 buyers invested either in a flat or a plot in Shahberi village. In the corresponding period in 2013, this figure stood at 210.
What attracted so many buyers to this village? The Mahaveer Homes 2 brochure offers some clues: “Location benefits. Crossing Republik at walking distance, NH-24 just 1 km, ABES Engg College just 1 km, Railway Station just 5 km, Fortis Hospital just 10 minutes drive, Noida City Centre Metro Station just 15 minutes drive, standard drive from Delhi 10 minutes.”
But since the land does not belong to the GNIDA, the homes are relatively affordable, explained a local builder, adding: “The authority-owned land has facilities of road, streetlights, sewerage system and markets. So prices are higher.”
But cheaper homes come at a cost — in this case, nine lives.
“Some builders tend to use sub-standard construction material. I visited the collapse site — iron rods used in the pillar and beam were 12-mm thick; they should have been 16 mm. This made the structure weak,” the builder claimed.
According to Virendra Kumar Paul, Faculty at the School of Planning and Architecture, areas in Greater Noida and Ghaziabad have “sandy” soil, and unauthorised construction can easily prove lethal.
Paul said the collapse could be a result of water seepage to the foundation through various sources, which would have “reduced the bearing capacity of soil”.
He added that in such a situation, buildings either tilt or the foundation gives way. “People do not give importance to laying a proper foundation. The building plan is made and construction takes place in a very unscientific way. Plus, construction material is likely of low quality. This combination is lethal.”
During the rescue efforts at the collapse site, Commandant PK Srivastava of the 8th Batallion, National Disaster Response Force, had said it could be a result of “non-engineered building” or construction not being vetted by a structural engineer.
Boom or bust?
Amid several enquiries and attempts to pin the blame following the collapse, Manoj Gaur, managing director of Gaurs Group and vice-president of builders’ association CREDAI, said an unprecedented growth without regulation has taken place because of the administration’s failures.
“These buildings are not compliant with the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act — they don’t have any clearances, but were still registered. Corruption in the revenue department, with officials only caring about revenue generated from stamp duty, has led to this rampant, unauthorised construction. On a plot of land where housing societies are coming up, all rules are applied and inspection by officials takes place. But right next door, an entire colony comes up in front of you without any regulation,” said Gaur, adding that CREDAI has raised the issue with authorities, but in vain.
In fact, before the July 17 collapse, at least five complaints were made to multiple authorities on the ongoing construction and lack of basic amenities in Shahberi.
In February, Greater Noida resident Nirmal Kumar had gone to Shahberi to buy a plot of land. Narrow, unpaved roads, flanked by buildings on either side, seemingly without a proper layout, shocked him, and he wrote to various authorities.
On the Uttar Pradesh government’s online portal for grievances, he wrote: “Without any layout approval or basic amenities — roads and sewer lines — these 7-8-storey buildings have been built. This kind of continuous unauthorised and illegal development could be very dangerous to residents, when more than 5,000 such flats get constructed here. It is a request that you stop this kind of construction, otherwise the situation can become explosive.”
Shahberi resident Sandeep Dubey of the World Sadbhavna Foundation had filed an RTI to the GNIDA in 2017, asking if it was necessary for builders to get plans passed for buildings in the area. He had also written to the Senior Superintendent of Police in 2018, complaining that a builder had not provided infrastructure such as sewage drains.
But authorities appear to have kept Shahberi at an arm’s length as it grew vertically. “Those who used to own land in Shahberi had turned down GNIDA’s proposal to acquire it. Villagers approached courts and rejected the development the Authority had to offer. Apart from notices served intermittently to builders and property owners in Shahberi, GNIDA seems to have not stepped into that area again,” said a senior government official, who did not wish to be named.
In an official statement, the GNIDA CEO also said that when the village was notified under Phase I of Greater Noida area, the notification was quashed by the Supreme Court on May 12, 2011.
“Land in Shahberi was acquired under the emergency clause of the Land Acquisition Act by GNIDA, and this was challenged by land owners, mostly farmers, in court. By 2011, the Allahabad High Court as well as Supreme Court had quashed the land acquisition. Land ownership rights went back to the people, and they were asked to return the compensation given by the Authority,” a senior government official explained.
“As per the master plan, land use remained residential. Meanwhile, residents started selling land to small builders, who started constructing these multi-storey buildings without any adherence to building guidelines,” said the official.
However hard it may be to live under the shadow of tragedy, those who have spent their life’s savings to buy a home in Shahberi have nowhere else to go.
Dhirendra’s wife Babita used to hope that a drainage network and roads would come up — if not anytime soon, then at least by the time their two children grow up. But ever since the collapse, her conviction has faded. “We came here with stars in our eyes — it was the first home I could call my own after leaving my parents’ house in Hapur to get married. I lived with my in-laws and then in a rented flat in Naraina, where landlords would harass us. Jo bhi ho yahaan, apna toh apna hi hota hai,” she said.
But perhaps her situation is better than that of Virender Kumar, who has been asked by authorities to vacate his home as part of a crackdown on illegal buildings.
On July 21, Virender’s family of four left their one-month-old flat in multi-storey building JP Hite, and sought shelter in a relative’s home in Ghaziabad, after GNIDA ordered that the recently constructed building be sealed due to cracks on its basal columns.
Virender is glad to be out of an unsafe home, but the financial weight is enormous: “We can’t stay at our relative’s place for more than a couple of days… we will have to rent a place. I have a monthly EMI of Rs 16,000 for the next 20 years. I even have a debt of a Rs 1 lakh that I borrowed from friends and family. All this for an uninhabitable home. I will sue the builder for every last rupee.”
How Shahberi grew
2008-09: Greater Noida Industrial Development Authority notifies Shahberi village, which primarily had agricultural land. Land is acquired there under the urgency clause of Land Acquisition Act.
2009-11: Land owners from Shahberi contest the land acquisition by Authority, say land was acquired for planned industrial purpose, but had been given to developers for housing projects.
May 2011: Supreme Court quashes land acquisition of 156 hectares in Shahberi. Housing projects by seven big developers (Mahagun, Supertech, Amrapali among others) cancelled following order. Land ownership goes back to residents.
2011-12: Farmers start selling land to small builders. Haphazard unauthorised construction of multi-storey buildings begins. Prime location and cheap rates — due to its unauthorised nature and lack of amenities — attract families to these flats.
2014: Efforts by GNIDA to acquire Shahberi land prove unsuccessful.