Race on to rescue Delhi survivors

Thirty people are feared trapped under the rubble, with investigations suggesting the foundations of the collapsed building may have been weakened by flooding.

NEW DELHI // Rescue operations continued for a second night yesterday after the collapse of an apartment block in the Indian capital that has claimed at least 66 lives and left more than 80 injured.

Emergency teams spent the day pulling survivors and bodies out of the rubble in the Lalita Park Colony in the eastern suburb of Laxmi Nagar.

It is feared that about 30 people remain trapped under the concrete and iron bars of the building, where an illegal fifth floor had been under construction. Distraught and grieving families held a desperate vigil last night in the hope that more survivors would be found.

About 200 people were reportedly in the building when it collapsed on Monday, most of them migrants who had come to Delhi to work as domestic workers and daily-wage labourers. Emergency vehicles initially had difficulty reaching the scene because of the narrow lanes of the colony.

Early investigations suggest the foundations of the building may have been weakened by flooding when heavy monsoon rains led the nearby Yamuna River to break its banks and inundate the area in September.

Residents say the basement of the apartment block had remained water-logged for two months, a problem mirrored in many surrounding buildings.

The Delhi government announced it was conducting an investigation into the cause of the collapse, and police announced the arrest of the building's owner, Amrit Lal Singh, on charges of culpable homicide.

However, experts say the real cause of the collapse stems from the failures of planning policy and the pervasive corruption in which the capital's construction industry is mired.

"There is a very active nexus between politicians, builders and bureaucrats in this city," said Miloon Kothari, a former United Nations special rapporteur for housing, based in Delhi. "They have allowed thousands of buildings to go up without proper planning and without meeting even basic safety regulations. I am surprised more buildings have not collapsed."

A tawdry blame game has already broken out between the Delhi government, which is run by the Congress party under the chief minister Sheila Dikshit, and the Municipal Council of Delhi (MCD), which is in the hands of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

"The MCD is the authority for checking fitness of the buildings. It is their responsibility to check whether a building is fit for occupancy or not," said Ms Dikshit yesterday, adding that the council should never have granted a no-objection certificate to the owner when he sought to extend the height of the building.

Yoginder Chandolia, the MCD standing committee chairman, preferred to focus on the flooding and put the blame on one of the government's departments.

"The Delhi flood irrigation department was responsible for checking stagnant water," he said. "The MCD has little to do with it."

The incident has highlighted the often precarious conditions in which migrant workers in Delhi are forced to live.

Municipal inspections are rare in places such as Laxmi Nagar, and safety certificates are often contingent on little more than a bribe. Construction companies, keen to save money on materials, cut as many corners as possible.

Experts say these problems stem not just from corruption, but also from a complete failure to prepare for the influx of migrants in the past two decades.

"There has been a colossal failure in planning and we see now a huge shortage in affordable housing," Mr Kothari said. "People are forced to resort to whatever they can find, however dangerous it might be."

Delhi is the second-fastest growing major city in the world after Dhaka in Bangladesh, with a population of more than 22 million. An estimated 500,000 people are added every year and the city already has a shortfall in housing estimated at close to one million dwellings.

The government promised to build 150,000 new homes every year under the Delhi master plan adopted in 2007 but, in the past three years, construction has been almost entirely focused on preparations for the Commonwealth Games, which took place in the city last month.

Moreover, developers have shown scant interest in low-cost housing and little consideration for the needs of migrant workers.

"We have adopted this pattern of western-style suburbinisation where we build further and further away from the centre," said Mr Kothari. "But these people's jobs are in the centre and they can't afford to travel from the outskirts every day.

"Planners knew perfectly well 20 years ago what was going to happen here in terms of migration and yet today we have literally thousands and thousands of people living in dangerous conditions in this city."