Mumbai building collapses reflect rampant corruption

About 150 people died in India's economic capital last year as a result of illegal or substandard construction and lack of enforcement of safety measures.

MUMBAI // Mahadev Patil’s grocery store used to stand opposite the Babu Genu Market building. Until, that is, the five-storey building collapsed one morning last September, killing 61 of its residents.

“I didn’t see it fall. It happened very early that day, 5.30 or 6 in the morning,” Mr Patil said. “That’s why so many people died. Because everybody was indoors, sleeping.”

About 100 people lived in the 33-year-old building, distributed across 24 cramped one-room flats. Most of them worked at the Mazgaon docks nearby or as rubbish collectors for the city corporation, which owned the building.

The victims were among about 150 people who died in Mumbai last year in building collapses resulting from substandard or illegal construction, a problem that leads back to one of the key issues in India’s current general election: rampant corruption.

At the national level, the Congress-led government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been dogged by allegations of massive corruption.

In a sign of public anger over the issue, the Aam Aadmi Party, born out of an anti-corruption activist movement, won enough votes with its promise of clean governance to be able to briefly govern Delhi in January, just a year after it was formed.

The prime ministerial candidate of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Narendra Modi, harps on the Congress’s record of corruption in his campaign speeches.

“Corruption and loot seem to be in the DNA of the Congress,” Mr Modi said at an election rally in the town of Mysore in early April. “The public is in a mood to teach the Congress a lesson.”

However, none of the established parties can claim to be blameless. The Congress also heads the government in Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital, but the BJP is one of the two dominant political factions in the city’s municipal corporation.

And although corruption in the national government makes headlines, it is the corruption at civic and municipal levels that people encounter most frequently.

The collapse of the Babu Genu Market building wasn’t even the most deadly such disaster in Mumbai last year. In April, in a suburban area called Mumbra, the collapse of a residential building called Lucky Compound – an illegal construction – killed 74 people. And in June and July, 35 people died in partial or total collapses of five structures across the city.

In Mumbai, buildings are often erected hastily and illegally, and municipal officials are paid off to overlook their dangers. Flawed building plans are approved in return for bribes. The owners of buildings, unwilling to spend money on repairs, prefer to buy off safety inspectors instead.

Although illegal or dilapidated buildings are common across India, the problem is perhaps most acutely felt in Mumbai, a metropolitan area of nearly 20 million people. Population pressures are so high, and public housing so insufficient, that many millions of Mumbai’s poorest citizens must live in illegal or unsafe tenements.

Mumbai has more than 14,000 buildings that were built before 1940. About 900 buildings of varying ages across the city have been listed as “dangerous” by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC); 250 of these have been declared “extremely dangerous”, but they continue to be occupied as the political will to evacuate them is weak.

Many more buildings still are illegal, constructed without the requisite approvals. There is no count of how many such constructions there are in the city, said Dilip Shah, a property analyst who advises housing societies wanting to redevelop their buildings.

“The corruption operates at so many levels,” Mr Shah said. “When building plans are sanctioned, bribes are given. When builders want to slip an inferior quality of materials past inspectors, bribes are given. When builders or occupants want to illegally modify their buildings, bribes are given.”

For this reason, Mr Shah said, the Building Proposal Department within the BMC is such a coveted and lucrative workplace that bureaucrats even pay bribes to be posted there.

“All this happens with the knowledge of the politicians,” Mr Shah said. “But the nexus between the politicians and the builders’ lobby is so strong that nothing gets rectified.”

Corruption can even play a role in forcing Mumbai’s poor into illegal buildings. Leena Joshi, a professor at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences, explained how the locality of Parel – once a hub of cotton mills – virtually evicted its poorest residents when the city decided to redevelop the area, beginning in 1992.

Although much of this area, in the heart of Mumbai, was given over to new commercial complexes and condominiums, a portion of the land was supposed to be set aside for low-income housing, where Parel’s poorer families could be resettled, Ms Joshi said.

But these regulations were ignored. Instead, municipal officials gave in to pressure – and possibly to bribes – from corporations and developers who were eyeing Parel’s prime real estate.

“So many of the poor from this area got shunted out,” Ms Joshi said. “Where can they go? They can only move to slums in the northern suburbs, or they can move into buildings that are cheap but illegal or dangerous. These are the buildings that can fall down or have accidents.”

“The failure of housing in Mumbai is obvious,” she said. “The state hasn’t played much of a role in providing affordable housing at all.”

One real estate developer, who works with corporations and hospitality groups, complained bitterly about the bribes that need to be paid to police and civic officials even to construct buildings that fall well within legal parameters. He asked not to be quoted by name.

“There isn’t a commercial organisation in Mumbai, I think, that runs without handing out some sort of bribe,” he said. “Even if the building plans you submit are perfectly safe and legal, you’ll need to then bribe some bureaucrat to even get the approvals you deserve.”

“If this is how everything runs in this country,” he added, “no wonder people are sick of their government.”