Sunday, March 07, 2004

Multi-Storeyed Residential Apartments, fondly referred to as flats, can be found by the dozen in any metropolitan neighbourhood. They can be considered a panacea, THE solution to many a Metro. Built vertically, the space consumption comes down, affordability for rent/ownership for the hugely fancied middle-class, their optimal size a boon for nuclear families etc. They also create problems like water scarcity etc. What we normally see as issues is after such an apartment comes into existence. Can we not see some of the issues when such an apartment is being built?

The curiousness of analysing the aforesaid thing rose as I gazed through my window and started observing one such apartment being built right opposite to my house.

Have you ever thought about the people behind them? No, not the real estate guys, not the contractors, not the civil engineers, I mean the real people, the ones who build, if I'm allowed to use the old metaphor, these concrete jungles. They are more or less gypsies. These are the very same ones who really build the nation, whether it be huge structures such as bridges or dams, or laying of roads/rails, or the construction of factories.

As one who watched such labourers closely, as the multi-storeyed structure came up, I can say, its a dog's life they lead. The first thing that strikes us hard is that there's no shelter for the shelter builders. An irony indeed. They live, cook and sleep under the bare sky while their children play all day long, never knowing what a school is. At a very early age of 10, they too start carrying bricks, sand and cement to help earn their parents a few more rupees. (the wage structure gives more to men, less to women & the least to children)

Whats the food they eat? Shouldn't it be highly nutricious for all the hard work they do? Its not so, just plain rice cooked in an open vessel placed over 3 half-bricks with whatever scrap wood they can find as fuel. So, what do they eat the rice with? Do the' side-dishes' you order at restaurants come to your mind? Is it meat, or at the least vegetables? They can't afford such luxury every day. Mostly its a sort of pickle that a man comes selling every morning, a Horlicks bottle full costing Rs. 10. They take it along with rice and are ready for another agonizing, hot day's work, sometimes going well into late night, what with the contractor's precious over time, not the double pay that the rules say, but for a mere single pay. Poor creatures, there aren't any unions for them to ask justice.

And where do they bath or answer their nature calls? Oh yeah, we really can't expect the contractors to provide them such exotic facilities for basic sanitation safety. But then, we do have every right to blame them for making the neighbourhood dirty, 'Slum dwellers, how dare they spoil our Singara (beautiful in case of other cities) Chennai's road sides?' And how dare you can think of them bathing everyday? Afterall, the city's always reeling under severe water shortage. And, whenever their women have a bath, everyone on road can see them wash themselves in the open, with their petticoats rised to their breasts.

Most of the builders use some sort of covering, be it corrugated tin sheets or thatched coconut leaves, that surrounds the whole site, so that dust and sound resulting from the construction work get minimized. But then, this particular famous builder thought otherwise. As the work started to speed up, the room I stayed, being directly opposite to the site started to accumulate a fine layer of dust. An allergic to dust, even as I started to think of health problems that I'll have to face, a more worrisome thought occurred. Imagine what this mixture of cement, sand and powdered brick can do to those poor labor souls' respiratory tracts and the bodies in general. Speaking of respiratory problems, do the contractors check their real wealth, the employees' health every month? Only God knows. As far as I know, the only extra that they gave, I still don't understand why, was a luxury bath soap every month.

Other than the suffering of the poor labourers there were other worser things happening too. One fine morning, the lush green coconut palms that dotted the compound lot, of what was once a vacant lot were brought down. Now, why would they cut down the trees for no particular reason? They were simply there not obstructing any construction activities. The reasons given, one, its always a danger when you think of coconuts/leaves falling on either the automobiles that will be parked or on passers-by and two, they had to cement the whole land surrounding the structure. Talk about Rain Water Harvesting to builders like these. How naive can they get?

In a water starved city like Chennai, where do they get all the water needed, first to build such structures and second, when it is built, to support the residents? Isn't the answer obvious? Borewells ofcourse. There has been many a suggestion to the Government to bring some sort of restriction on this unmindful exploitation of the ground water resources. With no laws in place, why then complain of the depletion of water table? So, the builders did the wise thing too. They sank as many as 4 four borewells. As there is the much larger worry of watertable, we shouldn't talk about what the continous 24 hour drone of the borewell machinery causes to the neighbours.

The above account is quite a little of all that happens when a residential apartment is being built. A kind plea to future flat-buyers and owners -- do not merely accept a flat as it is. Please do think of the many souls' struggles and the other problems that went into building your life-long dream.

(Nov 9, 2002)