Sunday’s (20) multi-storey building collapse in Kandy and its resulting tragedy has become a hot button issue in Sri Lanka, oftentimes eclipsing the usual banter about politics and policy.
The incident struck a very emotional blow to the public when the identity of the victims was revealed soon after the disaster. A young family crushed under tonnes of rubble died in the cruelest way possible. But before the dust could settle, the questions started popping up: Was the structure built according to regulations? Or were the owners of the building aware of its condition and if so, couldn’t they have alerted the authorities and averted the disaster?
Up till now, two teams from the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) have been dispatched to the site to assess the damage and establish the cause of the disaster. NBRO’s Geologist in charge of Kandy, on first observation, said the building was constructed blocking a valley path and cited this as the main reason for the collapse. The first assessment confirmed that the collapse was not due to a landslide as commonly suspected and that it might have been due to loose soil that could not support the weight of the building. Authorities have already halted two ongoing constructions in the vicinity over concerns that they are not being built according to the proper standards. Meanwhile, an official of the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau confirmed that there is no direct connection between this collapse and the tremors that had occurred in some areas in Kandy recently.
The devastated owner, a former Basnayake Nilame of the Dodanwala Natha Devalaya said the construction work was given to a company and that the work was done with proper permits, according to standards. Speaking to the Media, the owner further elaborated that the family had woken up by 4 a.m. to the sounds of the building collapsing. The owner’s son claimed that he had informed the Kandy Police regarding the cracks on the walls, and that the house collapsed within seven minutes after he had alerted the authorities. The wife of the owner further claimed that the house was built in 2006 with all the necessary authorisations.
On Tuesday, the State Engineering Corporation (SEC) rubbished the owner’s claims that the entity had approved the building’s construction and further said that SEC does not approve private constructions. NBRO representatives and geologists said that the condition of the site had not been taken into account during the construction of the five-storey house. The Urban Development Authority’s (UDA) Director General also said that the Authority had no power to give approval for construction of the said house and that there are no structural details regarding this construction. When asked as to who has permitted the construction, a top SEC official said that the Kandy Municipal Council (KMC) had approved despite inadequate documentation.
The regional director of the UDA said that the building’s ground and basement floors had been granted approval in 2007, while in 2009 permission had been granted for a second basement and subsequent modifications for the building betraying the fact that the building had developed gradually during the last 13 years with little regard to its precarious location or site conditions. The UDA official further claimed that the Certificate of Conformity (CoC) had been granted by the KMC’s planning committee and that the blueprints only showed four floors however. The current inquiry is to establish if the fifth floor had been made without permission, with UDA and NBRO teams joining forces to dig further into the matter.
Although given the burden of the facts, it is still too early to establish a real cause of the tragedy. The investigators are doing their best, assessing the site and their instruments and testing methods will eventually reveal what really happened on that fateful Sunday. As the emotional public sides increasingly on the victim’s camp, it is expected that the owner of the building and his family will receive the brunt of the blame. But until the facts are established, we cannot blame any party. However, this incident should serve the public as a warning to all of the dangers of unregulated constructions and the consequences of rapid urban development.