Bhiwandi, a suburban town in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, has witnessed a building collapse in the receding weeks of the monsoon, killing at least 20 people including minors, and exposing once again, the precarious condition of many dwellings in one of India’s more prosperous States. Many more hapless residents and workers of a powerloom unit operating in the aging three-storeyed building were trapped under the debris. Legal liability and responsibility for the disaster have inevitably fallen on the owner of the structure and some municipal officials, for failing to abide by pre-monsoon safety audits. The monsoon has brought such disasters unfailingly to coastal Maharashtra, including Mumbai, for years now. In July, seven people died in the commercial capital, when two chawl buildings in densely populated working class areas crashed after heavy rain. Another incident in Mahad, in the rain-drenched Raigad district, killed many in August. These traumatic calamities, similar to many others in recent years, point to a worrying trend. Coastal Maharashtra has often received a staggering quantum of monsoon rainfall, and Thane district, where Bhiwandi is located, recorded 320 cm three years ago, over the average of about 240 cm. This is an alarm signal to the government. Flimsy buildings, particularly those constructed in the 1970s, are in danger of collapse, while their owners and residents are unable to fund their maintenance. A weaker economy in the post-COVID-19 phase will render expensive repairs even less feasible.
Ending the tragic episodes of building collapses will require Maharashtra to raise the bar for municipal services, beginning with safety audits. It is true that Mumbai’s municipal government has been identifying and classifying buildings based on hazard levels for some time now, and last year found 499 to be in a dangerous state. This programme must now include suburban local bodies such as the Bhiwandi Nizampur City Municipal Corporation, which lack the capacity and resources to carry out a comprehensive check. On the other hand, building owners must be incentivised to carry out safety repairs, with support from the Centre and the State, making such certified expenditure tax-deductible. Mumbai’s municipal engineers have, in the past, complained of political interference in the enforcement of safety norms, but as Monday’s accident makes clear, safety depends on quality. A more profound question is whether purely market-led approaches to housing can support Mumbai’s ambitions for growth, when its poorly-housed workers might be better served by a hybrid solution that includes decent, affordable social accommodation. The immediate priority for Maharashtra is to understand the scale of the problem, identify the weakest structures and launch a plan to prevent disasters.