Manual Demolition in India - Expectation vs Reality

Nearly 75 years into independent India, we see the modern nation built over foundations of concrete in a constant state of (re)development. With many parts of the country undergoing reconstruction, partially-demolished structures have almost become synonymous with the urban cityscape. For city dwellers, the standard “expectation” from these sites is of nuisance and covert rule-breaking or alternatively, of extreme sustainability. The "reality" however, is far more nuanced. This article sheds light on the working practices of the informal demolition workers and adds shades of grey “reality” to this otherwise black-and-white subject.

Avni Vishnoi
Min Read

Over 90% of the construction and demolition sector in India is informal, employing around 40 million people. [1] It is highly likely that we have all witnessed workers manually tearing down a building. While from the outside it may look like hacking down a building till it's a pile of rubble, manual demolition or as we like to call it - manual deconstruction is an art that requires much more skill than it lets on. [2] As per the waste hierarchy, manual deconstruction is a more environmentally sound practice than even recycling.

This is a practice largely carried out by the informal sector, which by its very nature, is not a regulated practice. While that may lead us to believe that this is a disorganised way of working, the reality is more nuanced. In this article, we compare and contrast the demolition "best practice" as stipulated by the IS 4130:1991 (Indian Standard for Demolition of Building - Code of Safety) [3] and the informal sector’s actual practice of small-scale manual deconstruction.  

The article has 3 parts. Firstly, we outline instances of how the informal sector complies with the Code of Safety. Secondly, we outline instances where it doesn't comply with it. Thirdly, we highlight instances where the informal sector goes beyond the requirements of the Code of Safety. So, without further ado, let us understand the informal sector’s craft of manual deconstruction.

"Tudai ka kaam sabke baski nahi hai. Hum toh kisaan log hain isliye auzaar istemaal karna jaldi seekh lete hain" (Not everyone is capable of demolishing a building. We are farmers and so we learn to use tools faster)
A demolition worker interviewed in India (anonymised)

1. Compliance with the Code of Safety

  1. Pre-demolition planning: Before starting the actual demolition, pre-demolition planning involves auditing the to-be demolished building for salvageable materials, deciding the sequence of demolition, and setting up a site boundary for air pollution control. Manual deconstruction always starts with this process which is also stipulated by the Code of Safety.
  2. Stakeholder(s) Roles and Responsibility: The Code of Safety assigns specific roles and responsibilities for the demolition to take place responsibly. While informal workers may not possess the qualifications that the Code-designated professionals do, they carry out similar functions based on their practical knowledge. For example, a demolition contractor often approves the procedure, instead of the engineer-in-charge as suggested by the Code of Safety. The workers ensure to cause the least damage to adjacent plots, in some cases, the contractor is even made to sign a contract with the adjacent plots which ensures that any damages shall be fixed if they were to happen.
  3. Power off: As suggested by the Code of Safety, all power connections are shut off before the demolition begins and the mains connection is either removed or protected during the demolition.
  4. Deconstruction: All glazed elements such as doors and windows along with all fragile and loose fixtures are removed as stipulated by the Code of Safety.
  5. Demolition Sequence: Workers follow a certain logic of demolition. The building is smartly hacked down in phases, preserving workers’ living areas, bathrooms, and staircases for as long as possible. The workers follow a  systematic storey-by-storey demolition maintaining structure stability to the best of their knowledge and ability.

2. Lack of compliance with the Code of Safety

  1. Health norms: Workers have poor living conditions such that basic hygiene is not observed. To put it in perspective, about 6 people live in a room of a building that is undergoing demolition and which also includes their cooking area. They have limited resources and one bathroom to share. They often have to deal with rodents also. Continuous exposure to dust can lead to lung diseases and dermatological issues.
  2. Safety norms: In many cases, safety measures such as workers wearing safety kits or red lights on barricades to indicate a demolition site are absent. No railings or barricades are placed around the slab holes while the building is demolished. The workers simply rely on personal vigilance and teamwork for their own safety. Nevertheless, these practices pose significant safety hazards. Instead of establishing infrastructure like sidewalks or adjacent roads, they designate their own personnel to direct workers and pedestrians on the roads.

"Apni taraf se toh hum sambhal kar kaam karte hain, kon chahta hai ki unhe chot lage..." (We try to be as vigilant as we can while we work, no one wants to get hurt…)

3. Going above and beyond the Code of Safety

  1. Preliminary Cost Estimates - The Code of Safety mentions separating serviceable materials from unserviceable (referred to as Malba) materials [3] but not about the importance of material recovery or holding anyone responsible for the same. The demolition contractors, however, make an estimate for material procurement at the planning stage itself (Fig. 2) which is something that the Singapore Code of Demolition - SS 557 stipulates. [4]
  2. Profit Sharing: The workers are monetarily incentivised by their Contractor to salvage every material ranging from waste electrical wires, electrical and plumbing fixtures, doors and windows, bricks, and steel since all of these are resold and thus, are put back into the system. This leads to a very high material recovery rate, and a potential for almost 100% circularity if the C&D waste is recycled. The Code of Safety suggests the takedown of a masonry wall part by part because of safety reasons - but workers go beyond by meticulously cleaning each brick to resell it.  
  3. C&D waste handling: The Code mentions the removal of Malba to a location as required by the local civil authority. In the case of Delhi, we observed that since no collection system exists [5], informal workers take the following 3 routes to dispose it:
  4. Preferred Option: Malba is sold for backfilling at other construction sites (Reuse)
  5. Secondary Option: Malba is sold to local recyclers (Recycle)
  6. Last Option: If they don't know where to take the Malba, it is illegally dumped.

"Arey madam, sab bikta hai. Iss building mein aap samjho ki kuch bhi bekaar nahi hai, har chiz ka koi khareedaar hai." (Everything sells in this building. There is no waste here, there is a buyer for every item.)

Food for thought

This article shows that the informal sector during a manual demolition complies with the Code of Safety unknowingly in many places but because it makes sense to do it. In some cases, like health and safety, where there is an additional cost factor attached to compliance, it doesn’t. Furthermore, in certain instances, it goes above and beyond the Codes to create a robust secondary material market, with a potential for nearly 100% circularity. But in order for the informal sector to thrive, the areas of non-compliance must be understood and aided. Some of the challenges that must be addressed are as follows:

  1. Health and safety standards must be made mandatory across all construction and demolition projects. There must be a system of accountability that checks that these are being met.
  2. Standard Manual Demolition Practices can enhance the efficiency of demolition, improve the circularity of projects across the country, and benefit workers by certifying their skills. Upskilling programmes for example can be really helpful in this situation.
  3. C&D waste handling is a hit-or-miss situation currently for the informal sector. While their intention is to dispose of it in the best way possible, very often they just don't have a place to dump their waste. Making formal recycling facilities more accessible and affordable would make this job a lot easier and reduce instances of illegal dumping.
  4. Profit-sharing models of informal workers are unique and contribute to sustainability. They should be encouraged, replicated across the country, and promoted.

Through this article, we hope to destigmatise manual demolition so that the art and skill of it can be nurtured to further the cause of circular economy in the Indian construction sector. The subject requires further research and interventions through top-down (policy) and bottom-up (grassroots initiatives) initiatives. Malba Project is one such initiative, but we hope many more will follow suit.

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