THE October 8 earthquake has exposed the weakness of our construction industry. While the current efforts are focused on relief, very soon we will get into reconstruction phase.
Some stocktaking is urgently needed to make correct policy decisions. The construction industry has been criticised. To quote a ministerial source: “It’s useless to trust our own contractors any more to build new cities……”
Unfortunately, the construction industry, the largest employer after agriculture and a major engine of economic growth remains fragmented.
In spite of its importance in the economy, there is no single ministry responsible for facilitating, regulating and upgrading this industry. Different sectors of industry interact with different ministries/authorities. But these ministries do not have an industry facilitation/up-gradation role. No one is responsible for solving generic issues.
In our country, the engineering profession is regulated by the Pakistan Engineering Council. For some strange reason, the council falls under the ministry of water and power, instead of coming under the ministry of works/industry or science & technology. Using its mandate of regulating the profession, the council has assumed the role of regulating the construction industry and therefore contractors also. The council issues licence to contractors after due scrutiny, under several different categories.
The Pakistan Engineering Council Act and its bye-laws require that all construction projects above the value of Rs2.5 million (this value is being revised upwards) should be undertaken by contractors licenced by the council. Unfortunately, especially in the private sector, this law has never been enforced.
Thus, like the ill-fated Margalla Towers, there are hundreds of buildings built and being built by persons who are not licensed to undertake this task. Builders/ developers encourage this practice and development authorities to turn a blind eye. Before the ministers or public starts blaming contractors, they must differentiate between licensed contractors and those persons operating without a licence. Appropriate steps are required to remedy the situation.
Any construction project involves: i) owner, ii) design consultant, iii) regulatory agency, iv) contractor and a supervising consultant. The responsibility of the contractor is to execute works according to drawings given to him by the design consultant. Thus, the contractor is not responsible for the suitability of design or whether or not it complies with various applicable regulations. It is therefore unfair to blame the contractor for under-rating a bridge, as long as he has constructed it according to design.
Also, the contractor constructs the foundations, according to drawings given by the design consultant who is supposed to have checked the bearing capacity and stability of the underlying soil. If structure falls due to soil failure or because foundations were under-designed, it is not contractors fault. By the same token, if the design has not catered for earthquake forces, the responsibility lies with the design consultant and not the contractor.
Unfortunately, until today, Pakistan does not have a ‘national building code’. In the 1970s, ministry of works had prepared a draft but it was never adopted. There is great controversy about earthquake designs force for different areas. Uniform Building Code of USA, UBC-97, places Karachi in zone 4 (Richter7.6 and above) while Karachi buildings are being designed for UBC zone 2B (Richter 6.5 maximum).
The zoning map prepared by the Meteorology department has placed Islamabad and Karachi, in a zone it calls “minor” (approx Richter 4.5) while UBC-97 places Islamabad and Karachi in Richter 7.6 plus (zone 4). Thus if design consultants have followed the Meteorology department’s zoning and contractors have constructed accordingly, who is to be blamed?
With a 7.6 Richter scale earthquake with an epicentre only 100 km from Islamabad, the city has experienced only one collapsed building which was built improperly by a developer with no track record and a contractor who cannot be traced. Otherwise, Islamabad seems to have done fairly well under this severe earthquake.
Similarly Lahore, which is under zone 2A (UBC 97) which corresponds to maximum Richter 5.5, probably went through the ground acceleration of maximum value specified for its design zone. There was no collapse in Lahore which is very encouraging. The talk of limiting building height in Lahore is therefore premature.
Lessons must, however, be learned from the Muzaffarabad earthquake and rectification should be undertaken. Lessons learned from Quetta 1935 earthquake led to the immediate adoption of Quetta construction bye-laws which till to-date, 70 years later, are recognized by and referred to in international engineering textbooks in masonry construction.
Commonly known as “Quetta Bond”, it consists of masonry construction with strategically placed steel reinforcement and should have been adopted in the vulnerable belt in Kashmir area also.
In the re-construction phase, while it is recognized that almost 50,000 houses need to be rebuilt, it is not clear whether the informal or formal sector will build these homes. Also, where will these houses be built.
These are important decisions that will affect the demography and socio-economic culture of the area. Even territorial defence consideration may have some impact on the decision making.
In an organized sector, pre-engineered steel buildings should be used for their lightweight, earthquake resistance and the fact that these buildings can be constructed in freezing weather also. In the informal sector, emphasis should be on the development of building bye-laws while using conventional materials.
Materials like cement — sand — clay blocks, reinforcing steel, angle / T-iron and corrugated G.I sheets should be made available free or at reasonable prices and at the easy delivery location.
Typical drawings using conventional materials and incorporating earthquake-resistant practices should be distributed to enable people to build their own houses. Visiting building inspectors should help people adopt these drawings.
The following recommendations should be given serious consideration in devising a long term construction policy:
Pakistan Engineering Council’s regulations regarding the use of licensed contractors- both in the public and private sector- be strictly enforced. Development authorities should direct builders and developers to submit the name of a licensed contractor before starting construction.
A ‘national building code’ be prepared and implemented. Until the availability of NBC, building bye-laws for areas of high seismicity (Zone 4 UBC 97), which include the areas affected by present earthquake and Islamabad, should be prepared on an urgent basis to regulate the re-construction effort. Guidance can be sought from Quetta bye-laws for masonry buildings for low rise structures.
On important public sector projects, quality supervision role be outsourced.
Ministry of Works or Ministry of Industry is declared parent ministry for the construction industry.
Pakistan Engineering Council is placed under the Ministry of Science & Technology and is given more executive powers to establish its writ.
A construction development board be set up under the ministry of industries or that of Works (or the Pakistan Engineering Council if it continues to function as industry regulator). This board be given the task of up-gradation of the construction industry.