Prosecuting building control officials

The most negligent ‘jokers-in-the-pack’ in all Karachi building disasters are not touched.

Roland Desouza August 16, 2011

Building laws are primarily meant to safeguard the public and ensure that structures are constructed and occupied safely. In the Karachi city government jurisdiction, the mechanism to enforce this comprises Sindh (formerly Karachi) Building Control Authority (SBCA) officials and the architects, engineers and constructors licensed by it. Cantonment areas have similar set-ups.

Unfortunately, building codes are observed in the breach, involving the wholehearted collusion of officials of the SBCA, the municipal/provincial bureaucracy above them and the politicians in government. Little wonder that poorly-constructed structures continue to fall and murder. Chapter 7 of the Karachi Building and Town Planning Regulations (KBTPR) 2002 defines a “dangerous building” as one that has “improper structural design and detailing, faulty and/or poor construction, decay, dilapidation, obsolescence, natural disasters or leading to abandonment due to all these reasons”.

If the building cannot be restored to its original status, it has to be demolished. Alternatively, if its “strength... has been impaired... to a level where it could by way of strengthening, re-strengthening, upraisal (sic) and restoration be brought partially or wholly near to its original status”, it may be repaired.

The SBCA has a technical committee on dangerous buildings that examines and categorises structures that are brought to its attention by SBCA officials, determining if the buildings are repairable, or need to be evacuated and demolished. The SBCA has the authority to forcibly remove occupants who are unwilling to move and also to demolish the hazardous structure through a contractor.

KBTPR 2002 also prescribes numerous safety measures to be observed by builders for the benefit of workers, passing pedestrians and neighbours. The site must be cordoned off with hoardings (like one sees in New York City); construction materials must not be stored on public streets, obstructions must be lit with red lamps at night; structures over ground plus two floors must have coverings over the pavement; and excavation works that threaten the stability/collapse of adjacent structures must be properly shored and supported.

Karachi lies at the confluence of three active tectonic plates and lies in an upper-moderate seismic zone. On September 1, 1998 the SBCA issued an amazing public warning about 26 high-rise buildings on Shahrah-e-Faisal that were “being constructed in contravention of the approved building plans, and the general public is warned not to enter into any transaction with the builders. Additionally, the unauthorised constructions are potentially dangerous as they are being built without an approved plan and have not been properly supervised by a KBCA-licensed Architect/Engineer. They are being constructed in violation of earthquake-resistant design.” Today, these hazards-to-life, unregularised, stand occupied on the city’s main artery!

Old and dangerous building stock (including those with falling balconies, roof parapets, chajjas) continues to collapse and kill.

On July 31, 2009, Khadija Manzil, a five-storey structure in Kharadar, collapsed because unprotected excavations were being carried out on an adjacent project, in which 23 perished. On August 4, 2011, Qasr-e-Ruqayya, another five-storey (including a number of extra illegal floors progressively added over the years) Kharadar building crumbled, killing 34. A short-term hue and cry has been raised, nearby shaky structures evacuated, survivors offered unacceptable temporary accommodation 25 kilometres away and compensation determined for heirs and owners arrested for ‘negligence’ leading to deaths.

However, the most negligent ‘jokers-in-the-pack’ in all Karachi building disasters are not touched. The corrupt SBCA officials must be prosecuted. So must the licensed architects and engineers who signed the building plans and supposedly supervised construction. This may begin to address the issues involved.

Why does the SBCA, the statutory agency charged with protecting citizens, persist in doing wrong? Because it generates money for officials and their patrons — and they get away with it!

Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th, 2011.

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