The death toll in the collapse of an under-construction building in Dharwad on Tuesday has risen to 15. Over 60 people have been rescued so far from the debris of the four-storey commercial complex and some of them are critically injured. At least a dozen others remain missing. Search and rescue teams are working round the clock but hopes of finding survivors are diminishing. For family and friends of those trapped under the debris, it has been an agonising wait. Police have filed cases against the building’s owners under the Indian Penal Code sections relating to culpable homicide not amounting to murder. A special team has been set up to investigate the tragedy. The building’s owners are said to be relatives of a Congress leader. Every effort should be made to ensure that the investigators are able to do their work without outside interference or pressure. This being election season, political parties can be expected to draw mileage from the tragedy.
Incidents of buildings and other physical infrastructure collapsing are common in India. Only a few days before the Dharwad incident, a foot overbridge at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus collapsed. Structural defects in the overbridge’s construction on account of human negligence caused the footbridge to collapse. A cavalier and callous attitude to the value of human life underlies many such incidents, including the one at Dharwad. Initial reports indicate that inferior material was used in the building’s construction. Its structural plan, too, was reportedly flawed. Importantly, the building was still under construction when it collapsed. It raises several questions. For one, why were shops in the two lower floors allowed to function when construction of the upper floors was still in progress? Did the building owners have permission to open the half-constructed building to the public? Had they secured no-objection certificates from civic authorities? Or did their greed for rent from letting out shops drive them to open a still unfinished building to the public, putting at risk the lives of labourers and shoppers?
A troubling feature of such tragic incidents in the country is the role of onlookers. Although some people helped the rescue effort by clearing the debris, the crowds gathered at the site of the disaster were by and large a liability. They blocked excavators and ambulances from reaching the disaster site swiftly. This forced the police to impose Section 144 to disperse the crowds. It is unfortunate that for some sections of the public, tragedies are opportunities for passing time, entertainment and clicking selfies. This insensitivity on the part of onlookers costs human lives. People need to be sensitised on what to do and what not to do during disasters and tragedies.