NEW DELHI: A whirl around the iconic heritage market at Connaught Place is guaranteed to fill one with a sense of aesthetic charm that this commercial hub holds. Not to mention the British-era architecture that stands testimony to its heritage.
However, one look at C Block, in the inner circle, nearly gives away the scars from the collapses that raised a question mark on the safety of the commercial units nesting at CP. A blue plastic sheet thrown over the first floor of the commercial complex tries desperately, albeit, in vain, to hide the tell-tale signs of the incidents.
Home to a seemingly endless line of popular commercial establishments, the pride of Delhi, as CP is called, took a bruising image hit after a series of roof and wall collapses in February 2017.
The New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC), which manages these commercial units, went into overdrive to control the damage wrought not just by these collapses but also the media glare on them. This at a time when owners of commercial units feared losing business due to dwindling footfall in the wake of these collapses.
However, the assurance of the civic agency in the wake of these incidents was in evidence in three years’ time when the roof of another commercial establishment at CP, near Scindia House, caved in on January 24.
Shaken by the collapses in 2017, the NDMC put together a dozen teams, comprising architects, engineers, doctors and other experts, to assess if the establishments meet the desired safety standards. Notices were issued to 900 establishments. Surprise inspections were conducted by senior officials and several shops, offices and eateries sealed.
It was only after owners of these commercial units were made to furnish a certificate by an engineer, attesting to the structural stability of the establishments concerned that the market complex was finally deemed safe.
This correspondent asked several shop owners and restaurant managers at CP if they have any recollection of these incidents. Most feigned ignorance or said they only have vague recollection of the collapses.
One shop owner even went so far as to drive a nail in the wall with a hammer to show the structural strength of his unit, saying, “Look. The walls are so strong here that even a peg won’t go in. There are no worries. We are safe.”
Considered the ninth most expensive office location in the world, CP is a ‘ticking time bomb’ in the words of the Delhi Fire Service (DFS). Fire service officers are especially concerned about 170 restaurants, with slender staircases, that are crowded on weekends. Adding to the worry are the loopholes that owners of such establishments exploit to secure licences or operating clearance from the authority concerned.
“As per norms, an assembly area, which is less than 50 seats, does not require a fire safety licence. It only needs a licence from the NDMC. The DFS is often not informed how many operating licences are issued (to commercial establishments at CP) and whether safety standards are assessed from time to time. It is only after an incident that we are informed and involved. Most restaurants have very thin staircases for exit in the event of an untoward incident,” a high ranking fire official said.
However, the civic agency said it’s not unduly worried about the structural safety of commercial units at CP and those in nearby areas. It said the structures are built employing the best engineering practices and no structural changes are allowed at the units, which come under Grade 2 heritage structures, with requisite clearances. The leaseholder of a property cannot do renovation, repair and even whitewash without permission from the NDMC and the Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC).
However, despite having such checks and balances in place, unauthorised construction and use of heavy generator sets at rooftop units continue to put commercial structures at tremendous risk.
“The NDMC has constituted a three-member team to study the reasons behind the recent roof collapse in the Outer Circle of CP. We continue to launch drives and conduct inspections to identify unauthorised constructions, if any, in the area,” an officer in the NDMC’s Enforcement Building Regulation Department said.
The wall collapse in N block three years ago had sent shockwaves across the national capital. It took an incident of this kind for the NDMC, which hadn’t conducted any safety audit at CP until then, to shake off its slumber and seal rooftop restaurants.
In the wake of the collapses, questions were raised on the manner in which property owners have issued licences, thereby putting lives at risk.
The civic agency introduced a more transparent online method for applying for structural changes to commercial units, thereby reducing the scope of human intervention as far as possible.
Presently, if a commercial property owner has to apply for permission for renovation, he/she has to go online, submit necessary documents and pay the fee. Usually, the processing time for an application for renovation is 30 days and that for new construction is 60 days. The applications are then forwarded to the engineering department, Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC) and the EBR department.
After the collapses, all commercial property owners were asked to submit a Structural Safety certificate, which requires authorisation from an engineer, after inspection, that the building is safe. According to the EBR department, all the properties in CP submitted the certificates stating that their buildings are structurally safe.
However, the claim did little to explain the fresh roof collapse incident this year.
In 2017 as per the report of the panels formed for inspections, 11 buildings were marked as ‘dangerous’ and another 22 terrace set-ups were sealed in the aftermath of the collapse. Most of them continue to be sealed.
The NDMC area is divided into two zones — North and South Zone. CP and Bengali market and some other prominent markets come within the North zone.
Data clearly suggests that unauthorised construction in the area continues despite the checks and balances in place. “We try our best not to allow any unauthorised construction. But people should abide by the norms. Our officers can’t be everywhere all the time,” an NDMC official said.