June 28, 2014. 4.30 p.m.

Raja’s face is beaded with sweat, his thin white vest soaked as he sands a plank of wood. He’s using a sheet of sandpaper wrapped around a chunk of wood—the poor man’s tool—and his movements are methodical and mechanical. He’s been doing this for over 20 years and can do it in his sleep.

There are three other workers around him, all in their late 30s, like Raja. Someone is drilling; he can hear the noise cutting through the thick, humid air of Chennai’s June. They’re all on the third floor of a residential building under construction in Moulivakkam, north Chennai. Seven floors stand above them, holding hundreds of other workers engaged in similar tasks.

Raja is a near a window and can see it’s dark outside. It’s been raining for about two hours, a dreary drizzle that makes the air inside the building even more oppressive. He thinks it’s about 5 p.m. and wonders whether it’s too early to take a tea break or whether he’ll be stopped on the way down and told to go back to work.

Raja decides to take that chance.

He lays down the block of wood and goes to the staircase on the landing. He walks down and wonders if he’s been working too hard because he’s feeling strangely dizzy and unstable.

It takes him seconds to realise that the ground is shaking beneath his feet.

“I ran. The walls were shaking, there was dust everywhere, I could hear people shouting somewhere outside. I could hear the rain getting louder and the floor above me was starting to crack.”

He runs down three levels of stairs, colliding into workers doing the same thing, pushing and shoving as the concrete walls crumple like tissue paper. He remembers pushing his way into the open, the rain lashing him, as people screamed and ran towards the main road beyond the gate.

I felt like stone was coming down from the sky. I couldn’t understand what was happening. I was nearly hit many times by the walls and tiles falling from the building.

“I felt like stone was coming down from the sky. I couldn’t understand what was happening. I was nearly hit many times by the walls and tiles falling from the building.”

On the first floor, Kalyan is cementing the walls of a three-bedroom flat. His wife Aarti is outside. “We heard a loud noise, like thunder, and thought it was rain,” she says. “Then I turned and I saw the pillars of the building were shaking. We thought it was an earthquake. Everything was shaking and we started to run. We didn’t know who was inside and who was outside, we just started to run.”

On the first floor, Kalyan struggles to move through crumbling walls towards the staircase but the way is blocked by falling concrete and bricks. Every floor is collapsing into the one below, like a house of cards.

“It sounded like a thousand bombs exploding at the same time,” Kalyan says.

Sixty-one people died that night, as the Prime Sristi Housing Limited’s under construction apartment building called “Faith” fell. A year and two months later, there has been no official pronouncement on why it fell, and no accountability to any party apart from the builder.

Prime Sristi’s Moulivakkam project officially began in June 2013, when blueprints for two 11-storey apartment blocks—Faith and Belief—were approved. Consisting of 88 units, this was Prime Sristi’s first real estate project in Chennai. 

Prime Sristi’s Moulivakkam project officially began in June 2013, when blueprints for two 11-storey apartment blocks—Faith and Belief—were approved. Consisting of 88 units, this was Prime Sristi’s first real estate project in Chennai. It is a Madurai-based company and has four residential projects there. Its last project was in 2004. The managing director is 60-year-old M. Manoharan, formerly a clerk with Indian Bank in Madurai.

Prime Sristi refused to speak to Fountain Ink for this story.

The company applied in February 2012 to the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) for permission to build. It was granted in June 2013. Residents say work on the site began as early as 2011. “There was even a puja on-site and some politicians attended it,” says Yamuna, whose house overlooks the site. “They were doing foundation work and bringing building materials.”

The site lies in a catchment area for Porur lake and the Adyar river. The lake is barely 500 metres from the site. CMDA records however classify the land as “mixed residential” as per the Second Master Plan and says “it neither lies in aquifer recharge nor in a catchment area”.

There is no explanation for this conclusion but the confusion is compounded by the fact that Tamil Nadu still hasn’t identified or classified wetlands in accordance with Rule 3 of the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010, nor has it submitted a report on this to the Central Wetland Regulatory Authority. Only Odisha has prepared the document.

Wetlands today make up barely four per cent of India’s total geography. Mumbai’s wetlands had shrunk from 235 square kilometres (28 per cent of the total) in 1925 to 160 square kilometres in 1994, and by 2010, stood at less than 70 square kilometres, as a result of urban expansion and construction. Most of Chennai’s new real estate development towards the south and north edges of the city is on lands that were once lakes or wetlands.

Prime Sristi’s ambiguities don’t end there. Vijay Bargotra is named as the project architect but the Council of Arhchitecture, Delhi, says he’s not registered with it and therefore can’t call himself an architect. Also, Bargotra’s signature is missing on the design submitted to the CMDA; it carries the signature of another architect, B. Suganya, and who designed the building plan is not clear.

The plan itself is unobtainable. A CMDA official says the Moulivakkam file is “missing” from its office. It’s also worth noting that Manoharan has no civil engineering background and he’s a first-time builder in Chennai but got all the clearances and certificates to construct on a site next to a lake.

R. Vijaykumar of the Tamil Nadu Construction Engineers and Contractors Association says the area was a wetland 20 years ago. “Regardless of the government’s definition, buildings here routinely flood due to the nature of the soil. Given that, there needs to be adequate earthwork and soil testing before construction of this scale can happen.”

The CMDA’s member secretary A. Karthik, in an affidavit submitted to the Madras High Court, stated that conducting soil tests and making structural designs based on the test came under “the responsibility of the builder and architect/structural engineer concerned”. He also said the CMDA had not received the soil analysis report as it was “not required”. It implies that planning permission could be given to a building which hadn’t furnished a soil report even though the site was in proximity to a lake.

Residents report that the site was a hub of activity. The two buildings were slim and grey, with elegant columns. Workers thronged from dawn to dusk. Eyewitnesses say that at any given time there were 150-200 workers at the site. Women mostly worked on the ground, shifting bricks and sand, while men worked on the higher floors. The skeleton of the buildings was complete.

Prime Sristi could only offer one reason why the building fell in lashing rain, a story they have stuck to since June 2014. It claims the shell was struck by lightning, an admission of basic preliminary negligence, an omission overlooked by government inspectors as well.

Six employees of Prime Sristi were arrested following the collapse—Manoharan, his son and company director M. Muthukamatchi, Vijay Bargotra, structural engineer Venkatasubramani, and two site engineers, Sankar Ramakrishnan and Duraisingam.

Kalyan came to Tamil Nadu in 2004 from Jharsuguda, Odisha, with a small sack of belongings and four family members: his mother Nanda, wife Aarti, and two little children. He had no knowledge of Tamil or Tamil Nadu, but he thought he would find work here.

Kalyan is tall and thin, with tousled grey hair and a face criss-crossed with deep lines. He says very little and his Tamil is halting, though Aarti has picked up a working knowledge during her time in the state.

“He needed to find work, and we were finding it very difficult at home,” she says, sitting in their house off Kundrathur Main Road, barely 10 minutes from where Belief still stands. It’s a one-room house with a corrugated sheet acting as a roof. The walls are papered with religious icons and a stick of incense has been lit to keep mosquitoes away.

Aarti says she is about 30, and is wearing a red sari with the pallu pulled tightly over her braided hair. “I worked as a sweeper in the railway station and my husband was a porter since he couldn’t find work as a mason. Then his friend told him there are many opportunities in Tamil Nadu.”

The family joined the scores of migrant workers crossing state lines and made their way to Tirupur where Kalyan worked on various sites over the next three years. Aarti frequently joined him (“but women are not paid as much as the men though we do all the lifting and carrying”) while Nanda took care of the children. They then moved to Salem and finally landed up in Chennai in 2012.

“We had been put in touch with a contractor called Kumar. He would assign us to different construction projects,” says Aarti. “We never had any direct interaction with any builders or companies. Our wage would be paid by the contractor after he took a portion of it.” Kalyan and Aarti were assigned to Prime Sristi in Moulivakkam.

“We stayed adjacent to the building itself; they had temporary shelters for workers,” Aarti says. “My mother-in-law and children lived where we are now, while my husband and I stayed there.”

Aarti says that when the building started to collapse, many workers tried to hide in the basement. “They didn’t realise what was happening. When they did, it was too late for them.”

“Hundreds of people had come from houses around,” Aarti says. “They were shouting and telling us to run to the road and move out of the way. My mother-in-law was there also and we just stood in the rain and watched.”

She doesn’t remember how long it took for the building to come down. “It just vanished. We could hear people screaming from underneath the stones. It was still raining and it had become dark, and we just stood there and waited for something to happen.”

In the 13 months since the collapse, the family has struggled to get by. Kalyan walks with a limp which has made it difficult for him to find work. Aarti works as a maid in nearby Porur but it isn’t enough to feed five mouths. “Media people used to visit us after the event and say government has announced compensation, that we will be given a government job and money,” Kalyan says bitterly. “We received nothing. The building contractor isn’t helping us. I went to the police and even the Sriperumbudur Taluk Office on their instruction. We got nothing.”

The question of compensation is a difficult one for the majority of migrant workers.

According to the handbook of the Tamil Nadu Construction Workers Welfare Board, as of 2014, there are just under 24 lakh registered workers engaged in construction activities across the state. Chennai has 39,847 registered workers only.

The catch here is the need for registration to be eligible for compensation and a plethora of other amenities offered by the board—accident coverage; pension schemes; assistance for education, funerals, marriages, and pregnancy; spectacles; dormitories; mobile hospitals and crèches; and even “holiday homes” for workers. In order to register, a worker must fill out an application form and submit it along with passport photographs, an employment certificate, and attested copies of age proof. The registration must be renewed every two years, or financial assistance will be denied.

“It is a very simple process,” insists an official at the Welfare Board in Chennai who refused to be named. “It is the duty of the employer to instruct the worker to register with us immediately. It is not possible for us to track down these workers ourselves.”

Unfortunately, employers themselves are unaware of the paperwork required, and workers, especially migrant workers from other states, are clueless. Four contractors spoken to for this story did not know about the process, and not one worker interviewed has been registered. This explains the gross underestimate of 24 lakh construction workers in Tamil Nadu.

The Building and Other Construction Workers Act also requires builders who employ over 10 workers to register with the Directorate of Industrial Safety and Health. According to a report in the Economic and Political Weekly, Prime Sristi did not. The Welfare Board official admits that it’s rare for a builder to comply, and even rarer for follow-up action to be taken.

A response to an RTI filed by an activist last year states that zero workers have died or been injured on construction sites in Chennai since 2008. However the Board website also states that accident death and funeral assistance has been extended to 731 registered construction workers between 2011 and May 2015.

“We are only doing our job, this is not a social service,” says the Board official.

“This is a shocking failure of the state,” says Anand Murthy of the Tamil Nadu Democratic Construction Labour Union. “They are using loopholes to avoid paying compensation. Claims sit for years and years with the Board and nothing happens. Builders pay a cess to the Board and the fund is now well over Rs 900 crore. This amount will never reach an injured worker, or family. Every year hundreds will die, and they will receive nothing.”

This isn’t a Tamil Nadu-centric problem. A survey by the Ambedkar Institute for Labor Studies, Mumbai, says 96 per cent of construction workers are unaware of government schemes that operate for their benefit and the major reason is that many of them are migrants, organised or unorganised.

Government schemes also don’t work automatically for them. An RTI filed by journalist Vikram Gopal last November found that Rs 14,099 crore was collected as construction cess by states and union territories till March 2014, but only Rs 2,382 crore had been used. In February, the Centre filed an affidavit which reflected the same findings. Delhi’s cess of Rs 484 crore only spent Rs 38 crore over 18 welfare schemes.

In his fight for compensation, Murthy tried to mobilise surviving workers or family members of victims of the Moulivakkam incident to file a civil suit. So far he has met with little success.

“Everyone is disillusioned now,” he says. “Politicians stopped visiting after the first two or three weeks. The story comes up in the media now and then but there is no change. Workers are scared to say too much now because they need to go back to work and get on with their lives.”

The majority of the workers at the site were from Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, and many have moved away in the past year.

Kumar, the contractor, was responsible for hiring at least 25 workers including Aarti and Kalyan. He has worked in Porur for the last 20 years and knows the area intimately. “I haven’t seen a building of this scale here before, but who am I to question?” he says. “I found workers for Prime Sristi; I was just doing my job.”

June 28, 2014. 6 p.m.

It was a normal day for M. Gunasekaran as he sat at the Poonamallee fire station. A heavy-set man in his early 30s, he was doing paperwork when a message came in over their radio. In the heavy-rain induced static, he couldn’t hear much, but gathered enough to swing into action.

Firefighters from the Poonamallee unit of the Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services (TNFRS) were some of the first to reach Moulivakkam.

“It was still raining. When we reached, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was a mountain of rubble where the building had once been. Residents and workers were swarming around, trying to move stones, and we could hear people screaming as they were trapped

Valliammai is one of the residents who ran to the site when she heard the thunder. “My own house was shaking; the vessels fell off the kitchen counter. We thought it was an earthquake and went out into the road but then saw the building. There are many houses adjacent to the plot, and their walls were falling, roofs had collapsed.”

Constable James Anand of the nearby police station received a call on his mobile phone from a rattled resident at about 4.45 p.m. Along with a team of five others, he made his way to the plot.

It was just chaos. TNFRS people were trying to cut through the stone and concrete. Some residents were trying to move stones with their hands. I tried to call out to someone underneath the rubble but he or she didn’t know Tamil so I couldn’t even communicate.

“We didn’t know where to even begin,” he admits. “It was just chaos. TNFRS people were trying to cut through the stone and concrete. Some residents were trying to move stones with their hands. I tried to call out to someone underneath the rubble but he or she didn’t know Tamil so I couldn’t even communicate.”

Crowd control was the logical first step; residents were asked to clear the road and make way for ambulance and fire tenders which were on their way. “The entire time we could just hear people screaming and crying for help. We wondered just how many people were still there,” Gunasekaran said. “There was a contractor on the site at the time; he told me about 50 people had been in the building when it fell. I told him that’s a lie.”

Over the next hour, he remembers about six or seven workers being pulled out alive, even as fire tenders appeared from Guindy and Ambattur.

J. Ramkumar, an officer of the TNFRS Northern Region, was coordinating. The mountain of rubble was divided into sections, and a team of TNFRS personnel was assigned to each, along with hydraulic cutters. Residents were asked to fall back. “There were simply too many people; the footfall could have dislodged the rubble and hampered our efforts,” he explains. “It was already very dark and wet. We knew we would have to work through the night. It was going to be difficult.”

Twelve workers were rescued in the first three hours, most of them not severely injured but in shock. Residents clapped and cheered as rescues happened, but fell silent once the bodies started being pulled out.

“We were sending victims and survivors to Royapettah General Hospital, and then to Sri Ramachandra Medical Hospital,” Ramkumar says. “I was starting to even lose track of the number of bodies, especially over the next few days.”

Politicians and senior officials were arriving as well. Animal husbandry minister T. K. M. Chinnaya was the first AIADMK minister to reach Moulivakkam. He was followed by Chennai police commissioner S. George and Kanchipuram district collector K. Baskaran.

The National Disaster Response Force arrived at 9 p.m. from Arakkonam, and rescue work went faster. Over 1,500 personnel worked on the site in shifts with 12 fire tenders. By the third day, when they knew the task was finding bodies rather than survivors, earth movers and heavy machinery was brought in to claw through the mountain of concrete, brick and stone.

“I knew we were reaching the end,” says Ramkumar with a sigh. “Some of the bodies were unrecognisable, especially due to the damp. Every day, family members would run between hospital and the site, trying to find their loved ones. Many couldn’t even claim bodies since we just didn’t know who they are.”

Seema from Andhra Pradesh lost her husband Kirankumar. She never found his body. “At the hospital they took me to identify but I couldn’t even stay in the place,” she says, a thin woman slouching over her hands, twisting her fingers together. “The people they found didn’t even look human anymore.”

Dr Venkatraman Reddy was one of the doctors on call in the emergency room of Royapettah General Hospital when the first bodies began trickling in.

“We received a total of 12 bodies,” he says. “They were all brought dead; there was nothing we could do but wait for post-mortem. Some had died of injuries sustained by the falling building, but three died of suffocation from being trapped for so long, with no food or water. It was a pathetic condition. We could offer no help to the family members who came to claim them.”

A doctor at Ramachandra Medical Hospital has similar stories. “By the third day, it was nearly impossible to keep track. Many bodies are unidentified so their names aren’t in hospital records. Apart from bodies, there were scores of residents and workers who were badly injured. There were also media people, politicians, weeping family members.”

Seema says the government has scaled down the figure of the dead. “I was there during the entire six days of the rescue, waiting outside. They were pulling out body after body. I saw it with my eyes, and there were more than 60. The government didn’t even know how many workers were on the site. There must have been at least 100, 150.”

Abbas, a reporter with a Tamil news channel, covered the story extensively last year. He agrees that there are many discrepancies when it comes to the body count. “The official toll is 61, but there is no official confirmation of how many workers were there in the first place.”

The second building, Belief, still stands, cordoned off by the police. Residents in adjoining buildings have been clamouring for it to be bulldozed. “Rents have fallen in the area since last year, because no one wants to live here,” says Janak Vohra, who lives in an apartment block adjacent to the site. “Who can blame them? I’m still here because my family has invested a lot of money in this house. But if the second building falls, our building will be the first to be affected. And we know now that the government will not help us.”

On July 3 last year, the government constituted a one-man enquiry commission of former Madras High Court judge R. Regupathi to look into the building collapse. In August, he submitted a 930-page document to the government, in three volumes. The first deals with the causes for the building collapse and who is responsible; the second has documents submitted by technical experts and the CMDA; and the third volume has documents including certificates from the 27 people injured, a list of those dead, and documents from people petitioning for compensation. This also includes people whose houses nearby were damaged, and members of the public who had purchased flats in the project. It should be noted that the matter of those who bought flats will come under the State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission which is also headed by R. Regupathi.

The Regupathi report, a public document, is shrouded in secrecy. No one outside the Tamil Nadu government has obtained a copy, and the report is yet to be tabled in the Assembly. It should have been done within six months of submission.

The DMK’s M. K. Stalin filed a PIL last year asking for a CBI probe into the building collapse. The PIL accuses the government of hiding the report and stated that the report’s veracity was questionable too, stating that “ministers and authorities are trying to shield and protect their own officials for obvious reasons”.

The petition states that the thickness of the load-bearing pillars was reduced, in violation of the sanctioned plan, something which is confirmed by the CREDAI report as well. More importantly, the petition says: “I am given to understand that more than 300 families were allowed to stay in the construction site itself. Even today there are some relatives who come in search of missing persons at site and they … are now turned off by officials.”

The petition says, based on reports and accounts from neighbours, that since there were over 300 workers and their families on the site, the death toll is actually much higher than the official toll of 61. It states that these bodies remain unexcavated under the mountain of rubble at the site. A resident filed a civil suit a few months ago complaining about a “stench” from the site.

Stalin’s PIL has come up for multiple hearings in the past year, but there’s been little to no progress. Excuses are made for adjournment, and many versions of the truth have come into play.

There is a lack of clarity on the total number of workers at the site, and all accounts are contradictory. The PIL says that the report states about 70 workers were on the site at the time of collapse. However the government says 61 died and 27 were injured (88 in total). Out of the 61, 14 were from Tamil Nadu, 38 from Andhra Pradesh, eight from Odisha, and one was unidentified.

Workers are unsure about numbers, pegging it at about 150-200, while residents can only say that there were always “lots of people at the site”. One worker says he was constantly working with different faces. “I could only recognise two or three out of 10; there were so many.”

No one seems to possess a comprehensive list of the workers on the site, or of the number of family members living on-site too. The Regupathi report is expected to contain these details, but it remains inaccessible.

CREDAI’s fact-finding team concludes the structure was flawed from both top and bottom. They blame the incident on a combination of poor soil testing, sub-standard construction material, and weak load-bearing beams and columns.

“We analysed the second building, Belief, and there is no doubt in my mind that it is a very poorly planned project,” says M. Kannan of CREDAI, Chennai. The column size sanctioned is also in violation of the National Building Code of India, 2005.

This falls in line with an assessment of the building’s structural design by Dr Devadoss Menon of IIT Madras and Dr C. Umarani of Anna University. They concluded that the building columns were in close proximity and in a condition of “high risk of imminent collapse” and that the building was just “waiting to fall”.

A structural engineer who was part of an investigation by the Public Works Department parrots the same line. “The soil won’t support a building of this stature, the materials are also faulty. We expressed all this in our report.”

Multiple reports have reached the same conclusion, all independent of each other, all corroborating the same point—that the structure was flawed. The CMDA does not dispute this but says that the original plans were in compliance but “to the dismay of the CMDA”, the plans were later altered without its knowledge. The builder meanwhile sticks to the story of lightning causing the collapse.

Anand Murthy says impatiently, “Isn’t that a fundamental problem? If a building can collapse when being struck by lightning, doesn’t that necessarily imply there was something wrong with its plan? And in that case, wouldn’t that mean the second building is vulnerable to collapse, too? On what basis is no action being taken?”

A key practice that would have explained the builder’s deviation to the plan would have been an inspection of the site. A. Karthik, member secretary of the CMDA, submitted several affidavits responding to the various claims made in the PIL. One of the main points of debate was why the CMDA granted planning permission for a building which had so many discrepancies.

But it’s this question of inspection that has seen several conflicting versions.

On December 1, 2014, Karthik submitted an affidavit which stated: “As per the practice in place for more than 25 years, no inspection is carried out by Enforcement Wing of CMDA before releasing the final approved plan and in this case also the planning permission was issued and forwarded to the concerned local body for issuing building permit as per the procedure in place.”

A fortnight later, on December 17, 2014, he submitted another affidavit which said that one of the conditions (for permission) was “to inspect the building under development for conformity to the various acts”. He also “humbly submitted that CMDA carried out two inspections before issuing planning permission”.

In the meantime, the principal secretary of the housing and urban development department, Mohan Pyare, said in his December 3, 2014 affidavit that “there is no statutory provision which legally requires inspection during the progress of the construction of the building”. He said it was the “sole responsibility of the applicant/developer/power agent and the structural engineers/licence surveyors/architects who have signed in the Plan to ensure safety during construction and after construction…”

Government bodies have distanced themselves from all matters related to the building’s inspection and safety in a series of back-and-forth manoeuvres. It’s interesting to note that the CMDA website itself states as follows under the Frequently Asked Questions section of its website:

“Your site will invariably be inspected by either the Building plan Surveyor / Town Planning Officer or Engineer concerned or an official of the Local Authority / official of CMDA as the case may be.”

Karthik also said that at any point of time, 150-200 multi-storeyed buildings are under construction in the Chennai metropolitan area and it’s impossible for any government agency to monitor this work. He said the developer “bypassed the system” by engaging a non-licensed structural engineer.

The investigating officer, Balasubramanian, filed an affidavit saying that no negligence or fault can be attributed to CMDA.

Despite numerous attempts, CMDA and other government officials refused to speak to Fountain Ink.

These evasions were noted by the Madras High Court, which said, “We … fail to understand how there can be planning permission without looking into the structural safety aspect … If no inspection was carried out, then it means that the concerned authorities have been negligent in performance of their duties.”

In the meantime, the CMDA is still withholding its Moulivakkam file and has not produced it in court. The Tamil Nadu government has promised to table the report in the monsoon session of the Assembly. At the time of writing, the report has not been tabled.

Every apartment in TRUST HEIGHTS designed in order to create a deep sense of trust that me and my family shall always live in good health and prosperity. After all that is the whole idea of having a home…”

This was Prime Sristi’s Trust Heights brochure for Faith and Belief. It promised “vastu shilpa”, a multipurpose hall, a swimming pool and gymnasium, children’s play area, security system, power backup, intercom facilities, proximity to transport systems, and nearness to world-class education facilities like PSBB Millennium School.

A 2-Bedroom-Hall-Kitchen (BHK) flat ranged in size from 975 square feet to 1,260 square feet, while 3BHKs were between 1,265 square feet and 1,600 square feet. Each flat would have toilet fittings of Jaquar or equivalent, eco-friendly materials, granite kitchen worktops, and teak-panelled doors. As a special Deepavali offer in November 2013, prices started from Rs 4,900 per square foot. Possession was promised from August 2014.

For someone looking to invest in property in Chennai, it seemed like a dream project. Over 50 flats were blocked, predominantly by families and couples planning for retirement, excited at the idea of being prospective house-owners.

A year after the building collapse, this group of people is still struggling with the burden. Banding together to form the Moulivakkam Trust Heights Flats Affected Buyers Association, most are still paying EMIs on bank loans taken for the purchase, though the project itself no longer exists.

“The banks will not let us default on our loans. Someone has to pay us back!” says Ranjani Viswanathan, who purchased a 3BHK. “We were promised a three-bedroom flat. My husband and I put all our investments into this. Now we live in a rented house and pay about Rs 50,000 per month as EMI for nothing!”

Another group of affected people is residents who live nearby, whose houses were damaged when the building collapsed. Lalitha Anandkumar, 42, is one of the residents, and says she has all but given up hope. “One portion of my wall caved in. My possessions were damaged in the process. I had to take a loan to reconstruct it, though it was no fault of mine. For three months I went to various authorities, every single day, begging them for help. Just because we live in a suburb and are not rich we aren’t considered important.”

Two months after the building collapsed, some of them filed a petition against the government, asking for compensation. A group has also filed a civil suit. The matter will come up for hearing in court at the end of August.

June 28, 2014. 5.45 p.m.

Raja’s clothes are soaked with water and dust. Something has fallen on his foot and he drags it behind him as he scrambles frantically towards the main road, away from the roaring building behind him.

Kalyan has managed to climb out of a window and has flung himself to the ground. A sticky pile of wet sand breaks his fall and he joins the throng pushing and shoving. The momentum of rain, panic and terrified workers carries him to the gate where he collapses, coughing and choking. “Every bone in my body was hurting. There were people lying next to me, just collapsed.”

Aarti finds him half an hour later, sobbing as she sinks down next to him. Residents have gathered thick and fast, many in tears. The thunder of falling debris continues, a monotonous drone that drowns out the screams of people still inside. Someone is hanging off the parapet on what might have been the fourth or fifth floor. There’s a massive cloud of dust and the floor crumples down, columns slapping into each other.

Raja is sitting on the road outside. Another worker is next to him, bleeding profusely from a cut on the left side of his head. The skin has ripped off Raja’s foot and he’s lost two nails on his toes.

The three other men he had worked with on the third floor less than 45 minutes ago were never found. Raja doesn’t know if they were part of the 61 bodies, but thinks it is unlikely. He says, “I know at least two men who did not find their wives who were working on the site. They just wanted a body to take home. Those bodies are probably still here.”