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Implementation challenges of urban planning and development – Part III

Prevailing Rules

Clause number 7.9 of Bhutan Building Rules 2002 states that all buildings having more than four floors shall have elevators. The Building Code of Bhutan 2018 states that an elevator is not required if a building has four floors or less. Elevators are not constructed though an approval is given only if all the requirements are fulfilled. The builders choose to only keep a provision but not construct because it needs investment. There are many buildings exceeding four floors but do not have elevators. This problem is aggravated by the fact that there was an administrative intervention and an additional floor was granted in lieu of an attic. This has increased the density, congested parking space and increased inconvenience as every property owner availed this opportunity, particularly in bigger towns.

Property owners have to realize that by deferring the installation of elevators, there is high risk of losing tenants who will move out when the housing situation improves. Under such circumstances, those houses will have to reduce the house rent substantially and the tenants may not be responsible enough for proper upkeep of the unit. In such cases, even installing a lift may not be feasible anymore. 

The building owner is the eventual loser though s/he may have amortized the loan.  But the asset loses its value.  

Safety of building environment

It has been observed that builders are not careful about the safety of building during and after construction. But the safety of the workers, pedestrians and occupants cannot be compromised. The building rules prescribe different measures but compliance is poor. 

a. During construction, safety of workers has to be ensured by having proper scaffoldings, safety gears and cordoning off construction site with fencing and other measures in congested areas. Some years ago, a flying plank from the upper floor of a construction site at Norzin Lam Thimphu claimed the life of a student. The case seemed to have been solved mutually. Had it been in a complex society, the owner would have been dragged to court and a huge compensation claimed. Due to lapses from the builder, a valuable life was lost.

b. On completion of the building, many building services like the septic and water tanks are either left uncovered or loosely covered thus creating accident spots. In the late 90s, a child had a fatal fall into a septic tank that was covered with a cardboard. The case was reported in the media but it was nobody’s concern. 

c. Similarly in November 2018 a child again had a fatal fell in a ditch of a construction site at a congested area in Thimphu. The media reported but there were no follow ups.

 d. Many buildings are occupied even before the completion. Balconies and staircases do not have railings, plinth protection and drainage work is incomplete and there is risk to life. The builder is in a hurry to complete the lower floors so that it can be occupied while work continues on other units. There are reports in the media of people falling off the balconies.

e. Building rules and labour laws cover occupation safety of workers but the workers are used to working without safety gears and accidents have occurred. The culture of wearing safety gears needs to be monitored to minimise accidents.

Frequent monitoring by the labour ministry and issue of occupation certificate prior to occupation of a dwelling unit has to be made mandatory. Unfortunately buildings are occupied before completion due to shortage of housing and also because owners want to start earning to start loan repayment.

Compliance Review

The Department of Human Settlements is mandated to check the compliance of plan implementation and the construction of buildings. Since the creation of DHS in 2011, such reviews have been carried out in different parts of the country and reports submitted with suggestions to rectify the deviations. These reports submitted to the respective local governments are taken lightly even though the reports are submitted in the form of a meeting with a power point presentation. Despite such concerted effort of the team to reach the implementers, those reports are considered insignificant as the deviations are mostly by private builders and taking action would mean penalizing the organization for its lapses and the defaulters. These reports are also neither backed by any legal tool nor picked by the Royal Audit Authority.

It is important to study such reviews seriously as lot of resources are used to prepare the reports and lack of action would de-motivate the study group. It needs to be highlighted that physical development plans are prepared spending huge government resources and if the plans are not implemented, it is a waste and there will be no confidence in such plans. The quality of life will continue to suffer if such lapses are not controlled.

Challenge to the planners

It is evident that planners shape the initial shape of a town, administrators mobilise the resources, engineers design the roads and other infrastructures and architects design the buildings. Contractors and individual builders do the actual construction. It is a teamwork consisting of all these stakeholders. Sadly when individuals judge these works, as they might have faced some difficulties or found poorly laid infrastructure, they are quick to blame the planners. Few years ago, a Kuensel journalist wrote that the Olakha area in Thimphu is a “good example of bad planning.”  Unfortunately the reporter did not analyze the issue holistically and misinformed the public about the weaknesses that the paper perceived were those of the planners. The implementation shortcomings are thought to be those of planners though there are many parties involved in the delivery of such a service. There is a need to rectify such misgiving so that everyone performs his/her duty professionally and efficiently.

Recommendations

To minimize the blame game and make all stakeholders play their respective roles effectively and efficiently, there is a need to improve the system by way of following the prevailing rules and avoid selective application of rules. The following recommendations are made, if the receiving authorities would like to clean up the physical and the management environment.

1. There is a need to promote awareness on planning through circulation of pamphlets during plan preparation and panel discussions in the media. Besides these, the planners may have to educate the public by writing critical articles in the mainstream media.

2. The purpose of preparing such plans is to enhance the quality of life. It can be promoted only if all stakeholders like Thromdes for infrastructure development and property owners for providing building services e.g. elevators, parking, not blocking the sunlight, erection of railings and other safety measures are followed judiciously. 

3. To ensure that public safety is not compromised, it becomes mandatory to issue an occupation certificate. Chapter 5 of the Bhutan Building Rules, 2018 is clear on occupation certificate and is already in practice in some Thromdes. The occupation certificate indicates that the house/building is fit for occupation. The external infrastructure and internal facilities should be complied with the approved plan failing which erring parties should be held responsible and accountable. 

4. Occupation certificate should be denied if there is no compliance till the rectification is made to the full satisfaction of the approving authority. Such shortcomings need to be frequently checked by the compliance audit.

5. Compliance reports submitted in the past need to be revisited by the receiving authorities with an intention to rectify the deviations so that administrators can use those reports and improve the living environment of the settlement.

6. The practice of regularizing a deviated construction with fine is a good approach but if it compromises on safety it should be fined and demolished. The purpose is not to collect fine for the purpose of enhancing the revenue but to rectify the defective construction. 

7. The Bhutan Institute of Architects and the Engineering Council should also hold their members responsible for irresponsible designs and supervision so that the quality of life and safety is not compromised. These organizations should have authority over such professionals who should influence the builders to abide by the technical standards; the approved plan and help the society to promote livability of the emerging settlements.

8. The RCSC, BIA and Engineering Council should develop a system to legalize the practice by architects and engineers so that they can enhance their specialization.

Conclusion

The present practice of not coordinating with all stakeholders will have to be changed so that everyone is complying with the plan and associated professionals. A concerted effort by all property owners, municipalities, planners, designers and contractors with supervisors will improve the livability of the settlement and enhance the safety and aesthetics. Let the ego problem be shelved and professionals, respected.

Contributed by 

 Meghraj Adhikari,

Former Urban Specialist.

DHS

The author has worked as an urban planner for the last 39 years

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