Pathetic construction of buildings in the Darjeeling hills

Writes Vivek Chhetri
Darjeeling, July 24: The collapse of a four-storey structure in Darjeeling on Friday night, which led to seven deaths, has brought to focus the pathetic construction of buildings in the hills.

Buildings have virtually come up in thin air in Darjeeling with residents using vertical wooden stilts to create space, though in reality, there is no land for construction.

Prashant Rai, the municipal engineer of Darjeeling civic body, said: “We appeal to residents not to be careless as it concerns your own safety. People rely on the skills of masons. Although masons are skilled labourers, they are not experts on the science of construction.”

The Telegraph went around in town today and found that some houses had “hanging staircase”, while others had created space over streams without proper support.

Multi-storied buildings have been constructed on steep slopes and without foundation, and some houses merely sit on the ground.

“I fail to understand how people can even think of coming up with such constructions,” said an architect who didn’t want to be named.

Amar Singh Rai, the Darjeeling municipality chairman, said the civic body would start a survey tomorrow on illegal buildings.

Asked about the issue, he said: “It’s a huge problem. There are a number of issues involved. People have to be given alternative space (for business or accommodation). Whenever we go to check structures that have come up illegally, people point at other areas where also such buildings have mushroomed. Nevertheless, we will launch a survey tomorrow and issue notices to those who own illegal structures and try our best to remove them.

The exact cause of the collapse of the four-storey building at Dr Zahir Hussain Busty, commonly known as Butcher Busty, has not been pinpointed.

Engineers said the Darjeeling residents must cultivate the habit of involving experts in constructions. “For most people, repair is only about applying a fresh plaster over cracks. Repair should involve identifying internal defects and strengthening the column and beams through retrofitting and jacketing of beams and columns,” said Rai.

An architect said: “The most important thing during construction is to have a soil test done so that one has knowledge of the earth’s capacity to bear weight. Designs can be accordingly framed. One should dig at least five feet for foundation and in some cases, it should be seven feet deep. Even then, if one does not find a firm base, techniques like combined columns should be used for weight distribution,” he added.

There are various procedures and rules in place for constructions but municipality officers said hardly anyone followed them.

“The building plan has to be drawn up by an authorised surveyor who is empanelled with the municipality. Either the building owner or surveyor should submit reports to the civic body regularly on the construction process but that is hardly followed. Construction should not be undertaken on slopes steeper than 30 degrees and there should be proper ratio of materials. But no one seems to be taking these issues seriously,” said Rai.

Ideally, a bag of cement should be mixed with one-and-a-half bags of sand and three bags of coarse aggregate.

“Masons have their own set formula. The ratio of water and cement mix also varies depending on constructions. The column designs have to be different for different constructions but the standard practice in the hill is to either use four 16mm or 12mm rods for a column,” the architect said.

Metro went around Darjeeling to find out about precarious buildings in the hill town.

On Friday night, a four-storeyed building collapsed, killing seven people in an area known as Butcher Busty in Darjeeling
In the picture above, a green house standing on Robertson Road has a narrow base because of lack of land, but a much wider terrace.

An engineer said this was a sure recipe for disaster as the upper floors had no support of a base.


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