Falling concrete, taped granites: Army people’s Kochi flats crumble by the day

The B and C blocks of Chander Kunj Army Towers where serious lapses in construction have put the safety of residents. Photo: Onmanorama

Kochi: An attempt to fix granite sheets falling off the walls of a building using duct tape defies not only the rules of civil engineering but common sense itself. This otherwise unbelievable sight welcomes you to the ‘C’ block of Chander Kunj Army Towers (CKAT), a 29-storey residential building at Silver Sand Island near Vytilla here. 

The duct tape trick is only one of the several quick fixes one can find in the two towers of the apartment complex housing serving and retired army personnel and their families. The building was constructed as part of a project by the Army Welfare Housing Organisation (AWHO).

Take a quick walk through the building, you will see cracks over walls, spalling pieces of concrete, protruding floor tiles and corroded steel bars – sights that have been flagged as telling signs of structural faults in the construction by multiple expert reports. 

Three such reports have called for the immediate evacuation of the residents from two of the three towers (B and C) in the complex citing safety issues while no action towards the serious recommendation has been taken yet. The residents also, barring a few, seem not concerned, apparently trusting the AWHO’s assurance to restore the buildings. 

Call for evacuation
Separate reports submitted by two assistant executive engineers of Tripunithura municipality and the Greater Cochin Development Authority (GCDA) after conducting a joint inspection of the building based on an instruction by the district collector have recommended immediate evacuation of residents while an engineer of the Public Works Department, who was also part of the joint inspection, is yet to submit the report.

Ironically, even the two reports calling for “immediate evacuation” were submitted several weeks after the site inspection. The inspection was held on November 20, 2023. The municipal engineer submitted his report on January 29, 2024, and the GCDA report came in on December 21, 2023.

Much before the joint inspection, an independent study by a team of the Indian Institute of Madras (IIT-M) had on November 5, 2023, submitted a report recommending “immediate evacuation”. In fact, Chander Kunj Army Towers has been witnessing a series of inspections and recommendations for more than the past three years, starting with a study by Mar Athanasius College of Engineering (MACE) in Kothamangalam in September 2020. Cracks on the buildings, and hence concerns over the safety of the residents, had started appearing way back in 2018 soon after the apartments were handed over to the owners. The construction of the buildings started in 2012. 

The faults in the construction of the B and C towers of Chander Kunj Army Towers at Silver Sand Island near Vytilla were pointed out back in 2018. Photos: Special Arrangement

While the government engineers, IIT team and MACE conducted the studies based on the request from a section of residents, the Delhi-based AWHO had assigned Bureau Veritas India Pvt. Ltd (BVIL), a private agency, and the Government Engineering College, Thiruvananthapuram, to look into the complaints of the residents. The two reports have suggested retrofitting of the buildings. The IIT-M report has, however, contested several findings in the BVIL study. 

“On December 3, 2020, BVIL Kochi submitted a test report to AWHO. The test regions, test types, and data analysis in the BV Report-1 were found to be incomplete and/or inadequate to make inferences for developing recommendations for durable repair of the entire building,” the IIT report states. 

Is high chloride the villain?
All the reports have identified high chloride content in concrete as the major reason for the distress in the buildings. The BVIL report has listed out use of contaminated water and aggregates, poor quality control and delay in corrective measures as the reasons for the distress.

“The study conducted by Government Engineering College, Thiruvananthapuram found that there was no record of quality control measures adopted during the construction of the towers. The lack of good quality control during the construction might have resulted in the continued use of poor-quality materials and premature corrosion of the building,” the IIT-M report states. 

De-bonded claddings of shear walls near elevators temporarily fixed using duct tapes. Photo: Onmanorama

“The source of chlorides can be mixing water, curing water, and/or sand used for construction. Presently adopted routine patch-repairing procedures without adequate electrochemical treatments are insufficient to address the root cause and extend the service life of the buildings for 50+ years, which is the current expectation of the owners. The present corrosion condition has arisen not only due to inadequate construction and material testing practices; but also due to the delays in implementing durable repair measures as soon as the corrosion of steel was observed within a year of construction. Continued occupation of these buildings is a serious threat to the lives of the residents and hence, highly risky,” the IIT-M report adds. 

“People who live here have survived only because of sheer luck,” Col. Ciby George, a resident of ‘C’ block who has been waging a nearly lone battle seeking justice for the 264 families in the apartments told Onmanorama. Col. George, also a civil engineer, moved to the flat after retiring from his 30-year-long service in the army. He has moved the police and the high court against the alleged irregularities that led to the poor-quality construction. He has sought a detailed probe by a central agency to bring out the truth and action against the culprits. 

Col. Ciby George (retd). Photo: Special Arrangement

AWHO promises restoration
The AWHO has taken the responsibility to execute the restoration work in Tower B and C. “A very reputed firm, M/s Bureau Veritas India Ltd (BVIL), was hired by AWHO to undertake a detailed Non-Destructive Test (NDT) using specialist equipment. AWHO is committed to executing the restoration work as recommended by M/s BVIL in a very exhaustive report of more than 13,000 pages. The work shall be executed by a specialist firm, the tender for which has already been issued,” it said in a statement on Monday.

The organisation said a few allottees were spreading misinformation about the proposed repairs, citing the report prepared by one of the professors of IIT-Madras.

“It is clarified that at no stage did AWHO hire the professor from IIT-Madras to inspect the buildings and prepare this report. This report by IIT Madras professor is the outcome of just a couple of hours of visual inspection. It is being cited ignoring the 13,000-page exhaustive report of M/s BVIL conducted most scientifically using specialist equipment over six months,” it said.

The faults in the construction of the B and C towers of Chander Kunj Army Towers at Silver Sand Island near Vytilla were pointed out back in 2018. Photos: Special Arrangement

AWHO said it will start the restoration work once the High Court or the civil administration gives its go-ahead. “The evacuation of the flats, if required, shall be carried out as per the plan of the firm executing the restoration work or as directed. AWHO also intends to take legal and criminal actions against individuals and agencies responsible for the lapses,” the statement said. 

Maj Gen Vikal Sahni, managing director, AWHO will be visiting the flats and interacting with the allottees on Tuesday to answer their queries and apprehensions about the restoration works. He had visited the project on January 30.

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