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       Volume 10 |Issue 22 | June 10, 2011 |


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Cover Story

5,000 and Counting

For most people, home is the ultimate place of shelter and safety. But for many, especially those living in and around Dhaka, home may conjure an image of a potential deathtrap. The recent collapse of buildings in Nakhalpara and Kathalbagan has brought to light the tragedy of people being crushed to death just for being at home. But as thousands more cram into the city every day paving the way for greedy house owners to fill in low lying areas to erect totally non-engineered buildings for renting, these avoidable disasters beg the question: how safe are we Dhakaites?

Rifat Munim

The apparently calm appearance of a place in Begunbari with its straggling, small tin-roofed houses and ramshackle buildings popping up here and there does not bear the mark of any disaster. Only a year ago it was the site of the most tragic disaster. On June 1, 2010 a five-storied building, poorly built on a small stretch of land no bigger than 15 feet by 12 feet, completely collapsed in the early hours of the day over another three-storied, tin-roofed house killing a total of 29 people including children. Whereas all of the building dwellers were left unscathed, tenants of the tin-shed who had been resting in exhausted slumber after a wearisome day of hard labour never opened their eyes again without a clue as to why they became the casualties of a deadly offence committed by others.

No, there was no tremor. Nor was there any nor'easter. In Dhaka, you do not need such things to bring about a disaster. The growing disproportion between the ever-increasing population and shrinking accommodation facilities has taken its course by churning out as many buildings as possible in the most unplanned manner. As a result, it is not only the rickety structures in the suburb-styled, thickly populated areas, but also the well-designed ones in the comparatively posh areas that are prone to crumbling. And when a building does collapse, it is the residents of the surrounding buildings who suffer the most.

Following some deadly incidents of building collapse, Rajuk identified 5,000 risky buildings in the city and served a notice in 2009 to reconstruct those structures with its approval. However, some recent incidents and their aftermath clearly show that there are thousands of yet-to-be-identified buildings which are no less perilous than the identified ones.

Three Outstanding Cases

The disaster at Begunbari was the result of a gross violation of Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC), which is a criminal offence. The collapsed building was built on a recently filled wet ground, a condition which requires special attention to soil testing, structural design and other engineering activities. However, the totally non-engineered building was built without Rajuk's approval, leave alone other fundamental tests and designs. According to section 2.6 of Part 2 of the BNBC, the violation of the code will be an offence and the concerned authority shall take legal action. In accordance with the provision, Rajuk filed a case with the Tejgaon Industrial Thana against the owner of the house Abbas and his son Dalim. It has been a year since, but neither the law officer of Rajuk nor the authorised officer who filed the case on behalf of the agency, knows anything about any development of the case. However, the second investigation officer of the case Sub-inspector Alamgir Hossain says that the charge-sheet accusing the perpetrators was submitted last month. Although it was a very simple case involving no ramification or mystery, it took the officers almost a year to submit the charge-sheet.

The collapsed building at Begunbari that took away 29 innocent lives. Photos: Star File

“After the case was filed, the building owner and his son were absconding. Hence we had to move a lot from one place to another to collect their whereabouts. All these resulted in a belated submission of the charge-sheet,” says Hossain defending himself. But his statement does not hold any weight in the face of the available facts that show a number of highly complicated cases, that were filed several months after this one, were discharged much earlier. Evidently, the reason behind this lethargy lies elsewhere. Md Akhtaruzzaman, the law officer of Rajuk, asserts that there is no reason why an uncomplicated case such as this should require so much time. Asked about why Rajuk as the plaintiff did not try to pursue the case, he says, “Taking legal actions against the perpetrators is within our ambit, but trying to expedite the case is not.” Shafiqul Islam, Rajuk's authorised officer, reverberates the law officer saying that Rajuk is not entitled to influencing the investigation process even though it is evident that the process is being deferred without any reason.

The Begunbari tragedy exposes the simplest form of BNBC violation by evading Rajuk's approval altogether. It also shows the price that lower and lower-middle class people have to pay in the case of such an event. Other instances of the story, preceding or following the Begunbari episode, demonstrate another facet of violation. The incidents at Kathalbagan and Nakhalpara, among many others, show that the owners gained Rajuk's approval and adopted the necessary steps as per the BNBC, including soil test and structural design, yet the foundation of those buildings failed because of flawed construction. Although no one died in the incidents, they have taken a heavy toll on local people, besides insinuating another disaster any time soon. A seven-storey building at Kathalbagan first tilted on another 17-storied building and then sank into the ground on November 7, 2010. It was also built on wet ground and its foundation failed because of faulty soil test and ground assessment. In this regard, Rajuk filed two cases against Shamsuddin Majumder, chairman of Asia Comtech Bangladesh Ltd, and the landowners for not following the building code. The case is still under investigation, says the investigating officer of Kalabagan Thana.

The seven-storey building at Kathalbagan that tilts on another 17-storey leaving a crack on the latter. Photo: Star File

The incident at Nakhalpara on May 21, 2011 which is the most recent in a series of similar events, introduces us to a new phase of the story. The piling of the proposed 14-storied hospital at Nakhalpara subsided while building a three-layer basement car park for the hospital on a 2.9-acre construction site. This site was also a recently filled low lying area. The subsidence took with it three tin-shed houses into the debris, widening the cracks in a number of adjacent buildings, roads and other structures. Two five-storeys tilted perilously. As a result, supply of gas, electricity and water to a major part of the neighbourhood was damaged and has not yet been restored as of writing this report.

“The subsidence of the construction site is making us suffer immensely. Apart from the utility services which are still run-down, we were left stranded for more than a week. The only road that connects a number of families including mine with other roads and streets was so badly damaged that we could not move until it was renovated,” says Md Alamgir who lives in a nearby house from the site. After the incident, an army engineering team launched a six-day earth-filling and road-repairing project to ensure safety to the neighbouring houses and buildings. However, like the public utilities, cracks in parts of many nearby buildings and roads are yet to be repaired. A total of eight cases were filed in this connection with Tejgaon Industrial Thana against the authorities of the under-construction hospital and its engineers; one was filed by Rajuk while the seven others were by locals.

This case, however, stands out because this is the only case which is not being dealt with in the characteristic, lethargic manner. Instead, one of the accused A Z M Zahid Hossain, secretary general of pro-BNP Doctors' Association of Bangladesh and one of the 80 owners of the under-construction building, was arrested immediately after the incident. He, however, was later granted bail.

The crushed Spectrum Sweater Factory in Savar that left 61 workers dead and several others injured. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

Asked if there is any political dimension to this case considering the hasty arrest of pro-BNP doctor, the law officer speaks of a new initiative that will surely make a difference from now on.

“From now on, we have decided to appoint lawyers on our behalf who will pursue the case and ensure trial of the accused as early as possible,” Akhtaruzzaman says.

Lack of co-ordination between the law enforcing agencies and Rajuk accounts for why the perpetrators of previous cases are still on the loose. It also turns out to be an incentive for greedy house owners to keep flouting construction laws outrageously. However, against the backdrop of such unnecessary delays, the above-mentioned move raises hope. But then it also raises questions whether the same provision applies to the Begunbari, Kathalbagan and other pending cases. Akhtaruzzaman is upbeat about expediting the previous cases in the same way. So is the Rajuk Chairman Md Nurul Huda. He says, “We have decided to pursue the previous cases by appointing lawyers as early as possible.”

Within or outside Rajuk's Ambit

Make a phone call to Rajuk, and ask any of its authorised officers whether they are responsible for all the illegal buildings that were and are being constructed without Rajuk's knowledge. You will be hurled with a counter-question:" Do you really think it's possible to monitor the thousands of buildings that are being constructed across the city?” Even though he is rationalising Rajuk's indolence, you'll think he has a point. His point well taken, let's just go deeper into the Begunbari case.

The subsidence of the construction site at Nakhalpara wreaking havoc on adjacent buildings and structures. Photo: Palash Khan

After the Begunbari tragedy, Rajuk identified several other risky buildings in the same area, all of which were built in violation of the BNBC. Thereby, the agency demolished the perilous floors and parts of those buildings. It also mandated that all building owners seek Rajuk's permission before reconstructing any part of those structures. However, virtually all of them have already finished reconstructing the demolished floors and rented them out to new tenants. The location of these structures is well known and well within the jurisdiction of an authorised officer. Shafiqul Islam, the concerned officer, says that he is aware of it and will take action against them in no time. Asked if they are incorporated in the list of 5,000 risky structures, he says most possibly they are.

A five-storey in Mirpur, like many others, slightly tilts because of faulty soil test and flawed design. Photo: courtesy

The same thing has been observed in Nakhalpara. The two five-storeys, which tilted after the proposed hospital's piling subsided, had Rajuk's approval but deviated from the approved design. Although their recent tilting was caused by land subsidence, Shafiqul Islam admits the deviation of those buildings. Asked if they are incorporated in the list, he says he cannot remember.

It becomes obvious that numerous buildings that were and are being constructed with or without Rajuk's approval were not incorporated into the prepared list of Rajuk's risky structures. However, the fundamental problem lies in the debate whether monitoring all these violations fall within Rajuk's ambit or not. First are the buildings that were constructed without the agency's approval. Then come those that had sought approval but deviated or made mistakes later. According to the BNBC, all of these fall within the agency's ambit. In the introduction of the BNBC, it has been clearly mentioned that “enforcement of the code is a continuous activity and requires a standing administrative structure for various jurisdictions in the country. Considering the difficulty of maintaining adequate technical personnel for enforcing and verifying compliance with diverse provision of the code, a professional practice-based certification, enforcement and administration structure has been prescribed.”

However, in practice, 'a professional practice-based administration structure' that would overhaul the construction sites and apprehend the offenders of various sorts, is far from being materialised. But if Rajuk really wants to make a mark in this connection, then it has to set an administrative monitoring cell in motion and prove that it can take action well before a structure is plunged into an abyss.

Essence of an Inspection Cell

Professor AMM Shafiullah, former Head of the Department of Civil Engineering and also the former Vice-Chancellor of BUET, is a pre-eminent expert on geotechnical engineering, soil characterisation, ground improvement and earth structures. He was a member of a Panel of Experts for the Jamuna Bridge. Currently, he is working as a member of the International Panel of Experts for the Padma Multipurpose Bridge advising the Bangladesh Bridge Authority on foundation and geotechnical engineering issues. Professor Shafiullah provides the Star with his opinions and a set of preventive measures to check incidents of building collapse.

Professor AMM Shafiullah,
Photo: Zahedul I Khan

Dhaka was a North-South city which is made up of Peistocene Terrace soil, a type of red soil which is about one million years old and extremely good in quality. On the other hand, the eastern-western side of the city contains soil that was deposited much later in natural process in low lying areas. Quality of this soil is not good at all. Besides, as the city expanded, we also started filling many ponds and marshlands of these sides. Most of the disasters or incidents of building collapse, if you notice properly, are happening in these low lying areas of eastern-western sides.

However, constructing a building on low lying or wet ground is not a problem per se. But all you need to do before that is the proper ground assessment followed by soil test, design and foundation building. So if you properly design it, you can even erect a high-rise on wet soil. But what we see in our country is that people erect buildings on wet ground without soil investigation and proper design. I think it is a matter of culture. In our country, we have failed to develop a proper construction culture. There are two types of problems regarding this. One is, there are totally non-engineered structures which may collapse; and then there are engineered buildings with Rajuk's approval that may also collapse because of flawed or unscrupulous construction.

The Begunbari disaster is a typical case of a totally non-engineered building. But the incident at Kathalbagan was caused by improper soil test. It was a well-designed structure but the piling works were faulty, so the structure tilted 5 percent and the ground floor crushed. Whenever a building tilts, it has to be related to faulty soil test and foundation.

The incident at Nakhalpara was caused by faulty design.

The only building I know about, the collapsing of which was not caused by wet ground and faulty foundation, was a nine-storey garment factory named Spectrum Sweater Factory in Savar. Its approval was for a four-storey building. Besides that, failure of the north east corner column base due to poor concreting work also resulted in the collapse.

As you see, except for Begunbari's incident, other three had got Rajuk's approval. Then how can such disasters happen? The reason lies in Rajuk's approval process. Based on some criteria, Rajuk merely approves the lay-out of the design but it has no connection with the construction process which is more important and which involves soil test, foundation building and structural design. If there is any flaw in any of these construction works, then a disaster may happen anytime.

On the one hand, we don't have the construction culture and on the other hand, Rajuk because of its poor manpower is not involved with monitoring. Since it is not in our culture, we have to impose it. When the BNBC was being formulated, we on behalf of the BUET strongly recommended the provision of a building inspector whose duty will be to check the design and inspect the progress from time to time. In most of the countries, there is a separate building inspection office. In the absence of such an organised body, the government asked Rajuk to take up that responsibility. Without the activation of such a body, it is not possible to prevent buildings from collapsing.

Since violation of the BNBC is a criminal offence, the perpetrators should be tried and punished. It might teach others a good lesson about the consequences of such violation.

Another crucial thing is that we seriously lack in foundation engineers. It is a specialised area. Not all civil engineers are adept in it. Only those who have first hand experience in construction can do this. These days, most bright students opt for CSE, ECE and Environmental Engineering. Although we get some students, none are interested in foundation engineering since it involves extensive field work whereas it does not offer any lucrative job for them.

This is another area we need to be concerned with. Most construction firms do not have experienced foundation and geotechnical engineers which is a major problem. If experts in these fields supervise a construction site properly, then no accident or disaster can happen.

Rajuk Chairman Md Nurul Huda talks to the Star about recent initiatives to contain building collapse

Md Nurul Huda
Photo: Zahedul I Khan

We know that rampant construction of building without seeking Rajuk's approval is going unabated in the city. Is Rajuk doing anything to check such malpractices?

It is true that there was no monitoring before. But after I joined, within the limited range of our capacity, I have initiated regular monitoring practices since May 2011. There was only one magistrate before and there was no provision for a mobile court in Rajuk. Now there are four magistrates who along with the authorised officers keep an eye on all illegal structures through regular mobile courts. According to the mobile court provision, the penalties are two-year imprisonment on the spot, and a minimum fine of Tk 20,000 and maximum of Tk 2,00,000. By enforcing this law, our objective is to make an environment-friendly Dhaka where everyone will be abiding the laws. It is also our objective to punish the offenders to drive home the message that no one can operate illegally with impunity.

However, in order to ensure justice we have decided to differentiate between major deviation and minor deviation. In case of the latter, the charges will be minimal but in case of the former, the perpetrator will be given due punishment.

The authorised officers are supposed to monitor certain buildings in certain areas. For example, after the Begunbari incident, Rajuk identified a number of other risky buildings and demolished parts of those asking the owners strictly not to renovate or reconstruct without its approval. However, the building owners have already finished reconstruction and rented those floors out to new tenants. The concerned authorised officers seem to turn a blind eye to it. Why?

To address this, we have already set up four monitoring camps. But we need more. At present, we have only four authorised officers. But I have taken a massive initiative to reorganise the Rajuk wherein there will be 24 authorised officers which will substantially enhance our monitoring capabilities. After the reorganisation, I believe almost all the areas in Dhaka will be within our ambit facilitating the identification of illegal buildings and punishment of the offenders.

Would you please enlighten us about the reorganisation?

In black and white, Rajuk has thousands of staff but in reality here I work with only 800 people. So I attempted to increase my staff base. Following my request, the establishment ministry has agreed to raise the staff initially to 2,500 that would include more engineers, officers and lawyers. In fact, I'm trying to strengthen the planning and architecture wings so that the DAP and other housing projects can be successfully operated. Then I have taken initiatives to decentralise Rajuk dividing it in eight zones. Among these, the Dhaka zone will be divided into four zones: Gazipur, Narayanganj, Savar and Keraniganj. Except for some exclusively important matters such as high-rise buildings and construction in disputed land, all other matters and cases will be within the jurisdiction of the zonal offices which I believe will effectively bring things under control.

Many experts have said that the absence of an inspecting team to monitor the construction site is responsible for a number of recent disasters. They have cited the example of the disasters in Savar and Nakhalpara. What do you think about a team that will monitor specifically the construction site?

In fact, there is no such provision in the existing laws and acts. But we realise that while we approve the layout of a design, we don't examine the design with reference to an authentic soil report. Sometimes we have even encountered engineer's signatures forged by others. However, considering these real situations, we have decided to appoint four consultants for each zone of Dhaka. According to this proposed provision, any person or company intending to construct a building should submit the soil test report and structural design to the consultant who will then verify everything including the soil report and signatures. Then if the consultant signs or approves, we'll give our clearance.

Rajuk has recently decided to assign lawyers to pursue the cases it files against offenders. It is a welcome approach since it will expedite the trial. But does it have any such plan regarding the Bengunbari and other pending cases that claimed innocent lives?

Yes, we have decided to assign lawyers. In previous years, there were cases filed against people, but nobody used to be arrested and punished. Now my lawyers are pursuing all the cases based on a priority list. I myself visit the High Court premises to deal with my lawyers. Now I have separate team of lawyers for High Court, Appellate Division and Judge Courts. There were some unscrupulous officials in these sectors. I have ousted them and recruited honest and motivated officials to work persistently.

As for the Begunbari case, it is very much in the priority list. We will appoint lawyers to expedite this case. If necessary we will communicate with the IGP of police for co-operation.

Rajuk prepared a list of risky buildings and served notice to the owners. Is there any remarkable progress to that end?

After I joined here, I've identified more than five thousand risky structures. Many of these structures have got Rajuk's approval but have deviated later from the approved design as well as from the BNBC. We have taken action against more than five hundred structures so far and very soon we will cover the rest.


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