Rajeevan Nair could not bring himself to go out and watch what was a spectacle to many. Hundreds gathered in Maradu in Kochi on the second weekend of January to witness something that had never been done in India before — four illegally constructed skyscrapers being pulled down with explosives. “For them, it was like a fireworks show. But we were on the verge of losing our house in the vicinity of the high-rises,” says the 56-year-old deputy superintendent at the Kochi Port Trust.

Nair’s villa was a mere 12 metres away from one of the four apartment buildings that were to be brought down because of a Supreme Court order. And he was scared the demolition would damage his house, too. A week before the destruction, he covered his entire house with tarpaulin and moved with his family to a rented dwelling 150 metres away.

When the lakeside buildings came crashing down — two towers were brought down on January 11 and two on 12 — he could hear the explosions. “I felt the earth tremble.” He watched the videos online, like millions more, as the collapse was live-streamed and the clips went viral. The event was extensively reported by the local and national media, and even piqued the interest of global news outlets.

When the dust from the collapse settled, Nair heaved a sigh of relief. His residence had survived the demolitions. He plans to move back after a round of cleaning and painting. He also plans to have an engineer assess his house for cracks.

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The Kochi demolitions have brought to the fore controlled implosion, a method that has been used to raze buildings in the West for decades but is still relatively uncommon in India, thanks to lack of expertise and the availability of cheap labour for alternative methods. But with the success of the Kochi demolitions, controlled implosion could now find more takers across the country.

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The demolition videos show how controlled implosion works. First, explosives go off in a sequence at strategic places in the building. The structure then starts collapsing on itself. A thick cloud of dust and debris envelops the surrounding greenery and buildings. The whole operation is over in a matter of seconds. What took years to erect is reduced to rubble in the blink of an eye.

What is interesting in this form of demolition is that the process largely leaves the adjacent buildings untouched. In Maradu, some houses in the vicinity reported damages to windowpanes and roofing sheets due to the implosions.

S Suhas, district collector, Ernakulam, who oversaw the demolitions, says convincing the locals about the safety of the implosions was a bigger challenge than the technical hurdles.

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People from within 200 m of the buildings were temporarily evacuated, roads were cleared and Section 144 imposed for a few hours on both days. The Ernakulam administration spent around Rs 2 crore for the demolition project, with the contractors making money off the steel recovered from the buildings and the debris. No other structure in the vicity saw major damages because of the demolition, he adds.

“People are not fine with something exploding in their neighbourhood. But after the Kochi demolitions, thanks to the media coverage, they might become more comfortable with it,” says Manish Kumar, assistant professor at the IIT-Bombay.

Among other structures recently razed through controlled implosions are fugitive diamantaire Nirav Modi’s bungalow in Alibag and a hotel in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, both in 2019. An 11-storey residential building in Chennai was brought down in 2016. Telangana reportedly wants to use controlled implosion to tear down its secretariat.

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There is no data available on the buildings demolished every year in India. But according to the 2011 Census, around 5% of residences, or over 13 million units, are in a dilapidated condition. And there were over 2,000 deaths from structural collapses in 2018, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

Demolition is a largely unorganised industry with lax safety standards, and there are fewer than 10 companies in India with the know-how to carry out implosions. While explosives are used in mining and to bring down cooling towers and chimneys, they have rarely been used to bring down large buildings in India.

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Even in the US, Europe and China, where implosions of tall structures are hardly a novelty, the method is used in just 1-2% of demolitions. Before implosion, a building is cleared of toxic and flammable materials, glass, furniture, etc. Then the columns are drilled to be filled with explosives like ammonium nitrate, 750 kg of which was reportedly used in Kochi. The explosives are placed in such a way that the structure falls to a side if there are no buildings nearby or crumbles on itself.

Controlled implosion is preferred for structures with more than 10 floors or when a building is to be razed quickly. The latter was the case with Modi’s bungalow, which was in violation of coastal regulation zone (CRZ) norms. Vijay Suryawanshi, district collector of Raigad, says he gave the demolition order but Modi didn’t challenge it.

“I wanted to do it before he could challenge the order.” It was his first controlled implosion and cost the government just Rs 2.5 lakh. There are another 150 illegal bungalows in the district whose demolition has been stayed. “Once the stay is vacated, we will use controlled implosions to demolish them. It is cheap and saves time,” adds Suryawanshi.

A controlled implosion can be done in half the time it takes to use a high-reach excavator or a wrecking ball, and can cost just as much in some cases.

Time constraint was also the primary reason for the choice of controlled implosion for the Maradu flats, whose construction began in 2006. They were later found to be flouting CRZ rules, which do not permit any construction within 200 m of the coast in the area.

After homeowners got a reprieve from the Kerala High Court in 2015, the matter was taken to the Supreme Court, which in May 2019 ordered the demolition of the nearly 350 flats. After rejecting review petitions by the builders, the apex court in September asked for the demolition to be expedited and for homeowners to be paid a compensation of Rs 25 lakh.

The authorities had to make sure the neighbouring buildings, one of which was just 6 m away, suffered no damage. The district administration invited bidders and chose two companies — Mumbai-headquartered Edifice Engineering and Chennai-based Vijay Steels — to carry out the demolitions. Planning began three months ago and Edifice, which was given three of the four buildings, sought the expertise of Johannesburg-based Jet Demolition, known for carrying out controlled implosions.

“It was one of our most challenging projects as the time we had was exceptionally short and there was huge interest from the authorities and the people,” says Joe Brinkmann, managing director of Jet Demolition. Brinkmann has overseen the implosions of several skyscrapers, including a 108 m tower in Johannesburg in November. But this was Jet’s first project in India — and a high-profile one, to boot — and the company could not afford for it to be anything less than very precise. “If it had gone slightly haywire, we would not be sitting here; we would be behind bars,” says Uttkarsh Mehta, partner, Edifice.

Mehta adds that district administrations and the local police have been wary of signing off on controlled implosions as they involve the use of explosives and there is a risk of threats to life and property. “We had 2,000 police personnel manning the area in Kochi. You can’t have that for every implosion,” says Jigar Chheda, the other partner at Edifice. The largest of the Kochi complexes was nearly 70 m high — a record for implosion in India — while the tallest structure ever to be demolished using explosives was the JL Hudson building (134 m) in Detroit, US, back in 1998.

IIT’s Kumar says the Kochi implosions were possible only because the neighbouring constructions were relatively new, engineered buildings. “When the nearby structures are old, the ground vibrations can be severe. Also, I wouldn’t recommend it in a densely populated area.” There are also concerns about the pollution caused by an implosion, which can have a severe but temporary impact on air quality.

As demands for commercial and residential spaces increase in India’s major cities, some of the old buildings will have to make way for bigger replacements, and implosions could now be more seriously considered as a way of knocking them down. Similarly, the judiciary could use the Kochi demolitions as an example to order quick razing of illegal structures.





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