Chandra Shrestha had sold his house to Bishnu Khatiwada for Rs 22.5 million three weeks previously, and had organised a going-away celebration for relatives on 25 April at noon.
When a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck, the house started swaying violently and collapsed. Seven people, including Shrestha and his wife Bijaya, were crushed to death. A house built just eight years ago went down, when all others in the neighbourhood were standing. It turns out an Indian named Abbas Hussain had built the five-storey house even though his wife Mina Maya Budathoki only had approval for a two-storey house from KMC. Hussain added floors illegally and sold the house to Shrestha by forging documents.
A building in KMC-6 was called ‘Saat Talle’ because it was the only seven-storey house in the neighbourhood when built in 1997. It housed a church on its top floor, and killed 30 people when it collapsed on 25 April. Owner Radheshyam Shrestha had obtained KMC approval to build just a five-storey house but he added two floors and sold it to Nabin Rajbhandari. Engineer Rajan Suwal says: “No professional engineer would have designed such a tall house on a weak foundation on a floodplain.”
The nine-storey building in Gongabu housed a supermarket, a store and a mobile shop on its ground floor and four hotels on its upper floors. It fell like a house of cards in the earthquake, killing 17 people. Two people were rescued alive. Ram Krishna Phuyal, a contractor from Goldhunga of Kathmandu had built this house and later transferred its ownership to his son Pawan. When the house was built 10 years ago, Gongabu was a VDC and allowed Phuyal to build a six-storey house. But he built a nine-storey structure with 9x9 inch pillars using 16 mm rods. Engineer Suwal says: “There is no way such a weak pillar could hold up a nine-storey building. It was a death trap.”
There is a pattern to all these houses that went down in the quake: they are all high-rises built in narrow spaces, low-quality construction materials with weak designs that flouted regulations. Most tall apartments that violated building codes suffered structural damage, and now have red stickers. Most were built on the city’s outskirts which were VDCs till recently.
Janak Raj Joshi, former secretary of Ministry of Physical Infrastructures and Transport, says: “Even municipalities lack the capacity to check the implementation of the building code, how can we expect VDCs to do it?”
Benefitting from weak regulation, unscrupulous people have built weak houses and then sold or rented them out.
Bhuwan Man Shakya of KMC-15 built three four-storey houses that collapsed and killed 38 people. But the house that he built for his own family is intact. Shakya is at large.
Most of the buildings that collapsed in Gongabu were built to be rented out, and the landlords never lived in them. So they took shortcuts in construction to save cost. Madhu Mishra, former secretary of Gongabu VDC, says, “Most owners live abroad, others rent it out to hotels which add floors when they want, no one cares if it is safe.”
It has been two decades since the building code was passed, but it was never properly enforced. Ram Prakash Poudel at the KMC says 80 per cent of houses have violated the building code in the capital. He says, “We already have a strong law, what we need is its effective implementation.”
Engineer Suwal says the death and destruction caused by the earthquake is also an opportunity to right these wrongs. “If we cannot take action against the guilty even after so many deaths, how can we curb impunity in future?”
Centre for Investigative Journalism
An amateur video of a seven-storey building shaking violently and then falling to the ground went viral on social networking sites soon after the 25 April earthquake. It was the Morgan College building collapsing. It was luckily a Saturday and none of the 400 students enrolled were in the building. Bina Shrestha KC owned the building, had obtained the approval of Tokha VDC office, which is now a municipality, to build a five-storey building. But she ended up adding two extra floors on a weak foundation and silty soil.
A concrete future, Sonia Awale