The crumbling city

The crumbling city

Mumbai building collapse is the latest illustration of dismal urban governance

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The death of at least 10 people in a building collapse on Tuesday in Mumbai could have been prevented. The almost 100-year old building had, reportedly, been declared unsafe by the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority in 2017. The housing authority and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) claim that they had alerted the owners of the building two years ago.

But disagreement between the trust which owned the building and the residents over sharing expenses had stalled the project to redevelop the premises. Worryingly, this is not the first time that a Mumbai building declared unsafe by the urban authorities has collapsed. In 2017, more than 30 people lost their lives when another 100-year old building crumbled in Maharashtra’s capital. The city has nearly 500 old buildings that have been listed as unsafe by its municipality.

Dilapidated buildings caving in during monsoons is, however, just one part of the story. Urban India has been dogged by building mishaps of different kinds during the past 10 years. In 2016, 21 people died in Kolkata after a section of a flyover under construction toppled.


In February, at least 17 people lost their lives when a blaze swept through a Delhi hotel. In Surat, in May, 20 students were killed when a coaching centre caught fire. And last month, 15 people were killed when the wall of a Pune building crashed into nearby shanties.

Data from the National Crime Records Bureau shows that more than 38,000 people have lost their lives due to the collapse of various structures between 2001 and 2015.

The causes of such tragedies are varied. And some of them do make municipalities and housing boards throw up their hands in helplessness. In Mumbai, for example, an archaic law constrains the raising of rents in old buildings. As a result, owners allege that they have little money to invest in repairs and maintenance after the buildings have been categorised as unsafe by the BMC. But have the country’s urban authorities shown the resolve to address such tricky situations? Why hasn’t, for example, India’s richest municipality, the BMC, drawn on expert opinion to resolve the vexed problem of Mumbai’s old buildings?

It is common knowledge, moreover, that closed fire escapes, use of improper construction materials and illegal extensions to buildings are hazards in most Indian towns and cities. The persistence of such unsafe practices despite a plethora of safety codes raises questions over the certification processes adopted by municipalities — a troubling prospect for a country where 50 per cent of the population is expected to live in urban centres in the next 10 years.