Building Regulations Must Ensure Safety and Public Health For All

The Ministry of Urban Development released the “Model Building Byelaws” in 2016 to maximise public health and safety by regulating construction work and maintenance. However, these laws can have the opposite impact and push low-income residents into further precariousness. This is because multiple barriers prevent low-income people from complying with laws, such as the lack of information about regulation, shortage of formally trained masons, expensive compliant construction material, blanket application of laws and punitive measures. 

In 2016, India’s Ministry of Urban Development published the “Model Building Byelaws” (MBBL) that framed rules and standards that governing bodies at multiple levels—state governments, urban local bodies and urban development authorities—were to enforce for all building and non-building structures across the country (Ministry of Urban Development 2016). These standards aim to ensure public health and safety by regulating construction work and maintenance. They include legal requirements about the quality and dimensions of structures. The regulations comprise the government’s effort to build resiliency in structures and prevent the harmful effects of fires, epidemics, floods, earthquakes, etc. These regulations, thus, are intended to counter a trend of compact and haphazard construction that defines contemporary urban construction. Indeed, it calls for wider streets, minimum space requirements between buildings and height, and the use of quality construction material (among other standards) (Ministry of Urban Development 2016). It also includes specifications about plumbing standards, light, ventilation, minimum room dimensions and other health and safety requirements to address sanitation-related concerns that have evolved over time (Ministry of Urban Development 2016). Historically, disasters, both anthropogenic and natural, have provided the impetus and urgency to set standards to provide structural resiliency. Indeed, the prelude of the MBBL cites the Bhuj earthquake that killed 13,805 people and destroyed thousands of homes, precipitating the need for regulatory standards in India (Ray 2013).

While the by-laws were designed to ensure the safety of residents and community members, they can, in certain instances, have the opposite impact and push low-income residents into further precariousness. This is because multiple barriers prevent poor people from adhering to these standards for their homes. First, there is a lack of trained masonry in the informal and autoconstruction sector. Auto-construction (also referred to as self-build or incremental housing) refers to residents building a house themselves or closely supervising a mason in various aspects of design and building material management (Mehra et al 2015). This type of construction is highly flexible and, in most cases, does not adhere to regulations. Informal knowledge of housing practices is produced and reproduced by masons at the local level who work primarily in the low-income housing sector (micro Home Solutions 2011). The absence of a systemic mechanism in imparting knowledge about laws or training programmes for masons in the informal sector suggests that the gap in compliance of regulations will persist, endangering the health and safety of residents.

Second, building material and spatial dimensions that comply with regulations can make construction cost prohibitive for low-income groups. By-laws, thus, have a direct influence on construction and land costs. Third, the MBBL contains blanket regulations that do not take into account space crunch and varied topographies of cities (Kumar and Pushplata 2017). Informal housing in cities is often located in precarious and hazardous areas, such as foot slopes of hills, hilltops, flood plains of riverbed or canals. In India, generally, building by-laws in a city’s master plan do not consider the topography and formulate standards that are uniformly applicable, irrespective of whether the surface is hilly or undulating (Kumar and Pushplata 2017). The standards stated in the building codes only differ on the basis of land use planning, such as residential, commercial and public amenities.  

Punitive Action

To conduct construction, reconstruction or repair work of housing in urban areas, builders require the approval of a concerned local body and a permit from authorities. Without the approvals, work can be considered illegal and can attract punitive actions from the government’s regulatory bodies. If construction irregularities are found, in some instances, municipal authorities can also decline to provide basic amenities to the settlement. Moreover, houses that are found to violate the by-laws face punitive actions in the form of demolition or fines (Hindu 2018). Information about where these levies are channelled and spent is not publicly available. 

Small to large scale builders in the real estate business are the beneficiaries of such a system since they have trained personnel and financial resource to adhere to or come close to adhering to governmental regulation. However, considering the urban poor’s financial capacity, market prices are beyond their affordability. The threat of punitive action might force people to settle in slums or temporary camps to minimise their financial loss in the event of a demolition. Such a system curtails the aspirations of low-income residents to own a house. 

Tougher laws, punitive action and an absence of state support create a system that effectively curtails the aspirations of low-income residents to own a house. The role of the government as a facilitator or a catalyst in achieving building by-laws is negligible, given that it has failed to enhance the human capital of masons and provide subsidies for building material to encourage safe housing for low-income urban dwellers. 

Relaxing Regulations? 

Government statistics show that urban India has a shortage of 10 million or more housing units, and that most of this demand is from economically weaker groups (Puri 2017). While the MBBL mandated blanket regulations, authorities created generous relaxations for state-sponsored housing projects for juggi jhopdi (JJ) clusters, low-income residents under the Master Plan for Delhi–2021. It states that the minimum residential plot area should not fall below 32 square metres, however, “in case of Government-sponsored economically weaker section schemes, size could be reduced further” (Delhi Development Authority 2014: 4–15). There are a few other relaxations made for the convenience of the state in its efforts to provide shelter to the urban poor. While the state formulates building by-laws and enforces them in order to ensure safety and health, it neglects the same standards to a hazardous level at its discretion. 

Considering the relaxations given to the state, shall we assume that safety and health are overlooked by the state for the urban poor? And why is the state placing itself above the rules it is creating for the people? Is it justified to expect people to adhere to the by-laws while the state can veto or override the same at its discretion? Any changes to regulations must ensure that the safety and well-being of residents is ensured, regardless of their income. Patel et al (2017) found that relaxing a few mandatory building and site planning regulations on the cost of small two-room homes in Ahmedabad by developing two alternative layouts for the same site can reduce housing cost by 34% and increase supply by as much as 75%, without significantly lowering quality or compromising safety. 

The Way Ahead

The role of the state in enabling the people to comply with the building by-laws is equally or more important than just formulating them. Poor rates of compliance of by-laws in most Indian city reflect the inefficiency of enforcement, failure in considering the fiscal impact of by-laws and lack of systems in place that enhance the masonry capabilities and people’s awareness of by-laws. The fact that the government, in conceptualising the MBBL, has not adequately considered their practical application provokes questions about the relationship between policymaking and practical implementation. 

Concerted efforts must be made to address the gap between policy making, compliance and enforcement. First, it is highly advisable to cross-subsidise the levies from non-residential and luxury housing violations to subsidise building material among low-income housing. Subsidising standard building material can provide residents access to quality housing and will ensure that they avoid punitive measures. Second, organised workshops and training programmes at affordable rates can spread information and technical skills about building by-laws. These workshops should promote creativity and innovation in thinking of low-cost and durable materials and designs. They should also be conceptualised, keeping in mind the experiential and context-specific knowledge of informal masons, thus making the process participatory. Awareness about the need for resilient housing, including its long-term advantages, are also important. 

House construction is financially burdensome for many. The lack of access to finance is another major challenge in construction of adequate housing (micro Home Solutions 2011). By providing loans at low interest rates and flexible terms regarding collateral may improve the access to finance among the poor and low-income neighbourhoods to invest in housing that could sustain for longer and ensure safety and health of the residents. The government’s emergency services, such as fire brigades and ambulances, should also be upgraded, and minimum road dimensions and access to water pumps must be ensured across poor and rich localities. 

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