The Ghaziabad disaster underscores the need for regular audit of civic projects
Even to those familiar with the anarchy that characterises India’s public spaces, the collapse of a newly-built shelter in a crematorium in Muradnagar, in U.P.’s Ghaziabad district, killing at least 24 people, is a shock. A group attending a funeral sheltered from rain in the structure, when its roof crumbled. The deaths and injuries have left families distraught. Since women are not part of funeral rites in crematoria, they came to know of the fate of the men much later. A token solatium has been announced by the U.P. government for the next of kin of the dead and relief measures for others, but the loss of breadwinners who were in low-paying jobs has left the family members destitute. The State has shown great alacrity in arresting four people including a junior engineer, besides the contractor, citing culpable homicide, causing hurt and endangering lives. There are indications that it may use the National Security Act against some of the accused. Such measures cannot produce consistent improvement to governance, but the Yogi Adityanath government’s favoured image is that of strong enforcement, which it has sought to demonstrate time and again by shooting down in ‘encounters’ those with a criminal record. That approach can do little to improve U.P.’s standing. The Ghaziabad disaster is clearly the product of a system that lacks transparency and audits, and does not yield to quick fixes or measures meant to aid deterrence.
Every year, the monsoon extracts a penalty in the form of collapsed buildings in several States. Just over three years ago, several people died when part of a bus stand caved in near Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. Appalled by the 41 deaths in a building disaster at Bhiwandi, Maharashtra in September last year, the Bombay High Court framed questions for municipal authorities, including the basic premise: are those in authority completely helpless in preventing the collapse of structures and stopping the loss of life? The court also emphasised that citizens have a right to live in safe buildings and environment, within the meaning of Article 21. What happened in Ghaziabad is particularly deplorable, as the cremation ground is an essential facility, and entirely within the ambit of public authorities to maintain. There are suggestions that the structure was poorly designed, lacking stability due to use of inferior materials, while the contractor had several projects assigned to him in the district. These and other charges, including favouritism involving politicians, are best probed by an independent judicial member. Mr. Adityanath should realise that U.P., a laggard on many development metrics, can transform itself only through rule of law and efficient implementation of public projects. The horror of Muradnagar should impel his government to act.