Building collapses: dangers of illegal construction

Today, countless urban Indians live in unsafe, legally and structurally doomed buildings. Though RERA has addressed the problem, it does not apply to older buildings where most live

Today, countless urban Indians live in unsafe, legally and structurally doomed buildings. Though RERA has addressed the problem, it does not apply to older buildings where most live

Illegal construction pertains to any building or addition to an existing building which does not comply with the existing municipal or civil laws and has been built without proper permissions. It might be built on encroached or an illegally appropriated land. In India, both are usually true and instances of such building collapses garner negative press globally each year.

It may seem typically like an Indian problem, created by a combination of an acute housing shortage and collusion of politicians with unscrupulous fly-by-night builders in the past. However, illegally constructed buildings do not necessarily cater to only the lower rungs of the social pyramid. Here there have also been well-documented instances of luxury towers being erected either on encroached land or without building clearances.

Also, India is not the only country waging a war against the scourge of illegal construction. This continues to be a problem across the globe. There is no shortage of examples of how illegal construction has hijacked cities’ real estate markets and indeed their overall potential.

Italy: Italy’s once scenic Palermo, which caught the spillover housing demand from nearby Sicily, saw a tremendous amount of what was referred to as ‘private construction’ for almost three decades between the 1950s and 1980s and between 1951 and 1961. This illegal construction boom happened under the active patronage of the organised crime syndicate known as the mafia.

Malta: In a more recent instance in the European island country of Malta, a luxury project consisting of 75 high-end units was illegally constructed in collusion between the developer and the local environmental protection agency. The case is still in court.

Brazil: In Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro, the infamous ‘favelas’ or illegally developed slums have existed since the 19th century and continue to confound the city’s development authorities to the present day. Created and protected by local crime organisations, Rio’s favela slums are notorious for being densely packed, extraordinarily unsanitary and polluted, and breeding grounds for disease.

Turkey: Turkey has its own problems with what they call Gecekondus — homes constructed almost overnight without any clearances or permissions. The people who build these low-cost housing projects are usually migrants from Turkey’s rural areas seeking to settle down on the larger cities’ outskirts. Gecekondus, literally meaning ‘constructed overnight’, exploit an interesting legal loophole in Turkish law. This law prevents the authorities from tearing down or taking any action against people who manage to construct homes between late evening and early morning of the next day without being noticed by the law enforcement authorities. Instead, the authorities can only begin legal proceedings against such squatters, which usually drag on endlessly.

Jerusalem: In Jerusalem, illegal constructions have been taking place at an enormous scale for over a decade. These illegal constructions are invariably full-fledged buildings, built on plots over which the builders have no legal claim. The plots are usually land reserved for public utilities such as parks, schools, and places of worship, as well as on roads. Such buildings are constructed without the benefit of licensed architects and fall completely afoul of Jerusalem’s civic safety codes.

Bulgaria: Bulgaria, the 16th-largest country in Europe, has been plagued by illegal constructions in the middle of its famous reserved biodiversity zones. Abuse of various loopholes in the country’s laws has allowed unapproved buildings to crop up on the coastline of the Black Sea. This has also led to the pollution of rivers and destruction of biodiverse areas. In Bulgaria’s famous Pirin National Park, illegal ski tracks have been laid to pander to winter tourists, destroying the natural habitat of protected plants and animal and plant species.

New York: Massive cities like New York have their own problems. Just last year, an infamous NY slumlord (interestingly with an Indian name) was among the three notorious real estate players who attracted heavy fines for exploiting the extreme shortage of affordable homes in the city. The person had to cough up $105,000 for illegally creating micro-residential units, known as SROs (single-room occupancies) in local real estate parlance, and renting them out. These units have neither bathrooms nor kitchens, and the households that inhabit these homes must share such facilities with each other — a system that has long been illegal in New York. This person owns and rents out several completely neglected, dilapidated buildings.

If all this sounds familiar, it is because most of these examples — mere tip of the global illegal construction iceberg — have ready representation in India. In our country too, city planning and development authorities wage a constant battle against this scourge. Even highly-planned cities like the Pimpri Chinchwad Municipal Corporation (PCMC) must regularly demolish illegally erected structures.

When the structure collapses, completely or partially, lives and possessions are lost.

When the structure collapses, completely or partially, lives and possessions are lost.
| Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStock

Risk zone

Most illegal buildings tend to be unsafe. As we have seen with the annual collapses of illegally-constructed housing projects and unapproved structural changes and additions, circumventing local building codes, not engaging qualified architects, and using substandard or adulterated construction materials come at a high cost to people living in these buildings. When they collapse, completely or partially, lives and possessions are lost.

Also, illegal constructions — shoddily built or not — invariably usurp land reserved for creating infrastructure and other public utilities. This impedes the movement of people and goods, which are critical for the welfare and prosperity of a city, create drainage blocks that cause urban flooding during the monsoon, and often present a significant health hazard since they are not professionally maintained.

Illegal buildings in cities like Mumbai and Pune often operate without proper water supply and subsist on pilfered electricity. Because they are illegally constructed, such properties tend to be much cheaper than regular properties in the same area. Obviously, their developers had no long-term plans for these buildings and most abandoned them as soon as they were sold out. There is no legal recourse for homeowners in such buildings.

Many such buildings were constructed after bribing the local civic authorities, a fact which is invariably exposed. When this happens, homeowners in these buildings must write off their entire investments.

The instances where illegal buildings are regularised are few and far between. Even if regularisation is applied for under an amnesty scheme, the authorities will first conduct a structural audit to determine whether the building even qualifies in terms of safety. In most cases, such buildings are condemned because they are completely unfit for habitation.

While RERA (Real Estate Regulatory Authority) has gone a long way in addressing the problem by making future illegal constructions impossible to pull off, it unfortunately does not apply retrospectively to older buildings developed before its implementation. Even today, countless urban Indians live in unsafe, legally and structurally doomed buildings that endanger their hard-earned money and their families’ lives.

A word of caution

Aspiring homebuyers looking for good deals must check if the building has serious legal flaws. If so, it may very likely be demolished, and the property owners will not be compensated.

Investing in a home must be done with complete awareness and should not be driven merely by the lowest rate. Always deal with reputed developers who have multiple successful projects in their portfolios. For newer buildings, a RERA registration is an absolute must and for older ones, a proper title search conducted by a good advocate will reveal the project’s legal status.

The writer is Chairman, Pharande Spaces, and president, CREDAI Pune-Metro.

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