Chennai Metro Rail Limited (CMRL), which had thus far restricted its depredations to heritage structures, extended its scope recently to include a part of Mount Road. Even as a bus with 35 passengers in it and a car were driving side by side, the road beneath them caved in. It was a good thing that the subsidence happened on a Sunday afternoon when traffic was light. More importantly, the passengers in the bus and the car driver had time to clamber out to safety. But the episode has once again brought to light the question that refuses to go away – how much does CMRL care about safety when it goes about its work?
As in all the cases of cracks in heritage structures, the sinking of Mount Road too was dismissed as a minor matter by those who are laying our underground transport facility. All the safety precautions are in place, they say, and the problem has occurred owing to a sudden change in soil characteristics, which can escape attention despite the best possible assessment. At least that is the official view. However, it is quite reliably learnt that initial studies had predicted that many areas of our city would be prone to subsidence and this included locations in the proximity of some of our heritage structures. Work went ahead nevertheless, chiefly because it was felt that such occurrences (including the possibility of a collapse) are small sacrifices to be made in the larger interest of affordable public transportation. Affordable, did someone say?
How else can we explain the fact that drilling work has continued within five feet of places such as the Law College, Ripon Building, VP Hall, Siddique Serai, Bharat Insurance (Kardyl) Building and several other heritage properties? In the process, some have proved lucky while others have not. Structural experts have informed Madras Musings that VP Hall and Siddique Serai have sunk in uniformly all around. This explains the absence of any cracks in these structures but they have gone down in level by as much as five inches or so. Not so fortunate have been Ripon Building and the Law College, both of which have seen sections go out of plumb, thereby causing cracks. These fissures are now being monitored closely so that they do not get out of hand. The point to be noted, however, is that these could have been prevented in the first place if only the observation on possibility of subsidence had been taken more seriously.
Problems regarding heritage structures have, of course, never figured in the agenda of the powers that rule over our State. Such edifices are largely viewed as impediments to progress. But what price human life? If an entire bus can fall into a chasm that suddenly opens up, how can we be confident that all passengers will escape to safety every time? There are also the accident statistics. Among the four important Metro projects in the country, Chennai ranks second, till 2016, on casualties, immediately after Delhi. Thus far eleven people have died and sixteen injured in the work. If incidents such as those on that recent Sunday were to repeat, we may see those figures going up. CMRL would also do well to remember that many of the threatened buildings house offices and so cracks can endanger lives there as well.
CMRL has, of late, been more interested in stating that the Metro project has incorporated all safety standards to ensure trouble-free operation. But what price trouble and casualty-free construction? If that latter was assured, potential passengers would have greater confidence in the former too.