In schools, hospitals or shrines, you can’t escape fire risk in urban India

FIRE SAFETY IN INDIAN CITIES

Our work is to empower citizens, made possible by your donation. Click to Donate
Representational image (Fire at a Vishakhapatnam SEZ). Pic: Indian Navy/CC BY 2.5 IN

Media focus on the fire that broke out and killed four in Mumbai’s residential Mamoon Manzil complex has been less compared to that on the fire tragedy in the same city in the end of December. The cause of the fire in this building is yet to be ascertained but no one would be surprised if it was pinned down to faulty management and violation of rules.

Advertisement

Barely a week ago, the Kamala Mills tragedy got the Bruhan Mumbai Corporation (BMC) on its toes, throwing them into panic-stricken knee-jerk reaction: suspending five officials, galvanising authorities, managers, health and medical experts to inspect eateries and demolishing unauthorised restaurants. Now that a residential building has caught fire, the attention is expected to automatically shift and hopefully become more broad-based.

In all of this, the one point that comes out clearly, time and again, is that where fire safety is concerned, our cities are forever fighting yesterday’s battles. As Uday Vijayan, Founder and Managing Trustee of ‘Beyond Carlton’, India’s first people’s initiative on fire safety, wrote, “I am frustrated that we as a nation don’t put a premium on public safety.”

He quotes a study sponsored by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which finds that at least 8,559 fire stations are required nationwide, but only 2,087 are in place! The shortage actually works out to 65%.

He also points out that there is a correlation between urbanization, density, fire hazards and strangely gender!. In 2015, there were 17,700 deaths due to fire, of which 62%, or 10,925 were women. At least 48 deaths happen everyday and mostly in dense areas of Maharashtra and Gujarat.

But while human attention is usually focussed on immediate incidents and their geographical context, most cities show the same sad pattern where fire preparedness is concerned. It’s not just Mumbai and it’s not just restaurants and eateries that are at risk here.

Let’s take a quick look based on recent incidents and reports.

Mumbai

More than 30% of Mumbai’s buildings audited by the fire department are said to be unsafe. The Maharashtra Fire Prevention and Life Safety Rules are quite stringent on paper, including measures such as compulsory fire extinguishers and underground static water storage tank. But typically, many of these are wantonly flouted, as in the ‘1Above’ rooftop restaurant, which had got fire safety and building permission from the civic body in October 2016. Its emergency exit was blocked and the mandated open space was used for commercial activities.

In reality, the flourishing network of restaurants and pubs has transformed industrial areas into commercial ones. Safety rules include inspection and issuance of a no-objection certificate (NOC) that has to be renewed every year by the fire department following which a license can be obtained from the health department.

It is mystifying, however, that in spite of so many rules, noone inspects the fire safety equipment, while licenses continue to be issued to restaurant owners.  With hoteliers investing crores, rules are not followed by either the hoteliers, who are in a hurry, or the officials, who just want to get over with the job fast.

Fire safety norms for residential buildings and high-rises are also in place. For instance, buildings that exceed 45 metres, or roughly 12 floors, are considered “high-risk”. Those who do not follow the fire safety norms would be imprisoned for six months to three years and fined. But are they being followed? Right now, it seems the official focus is on inspection and suspension of eateries alone.

Delhi

The Mumbai tragedy spurred Delhi too to get into overdrive. Lieutenant-Governor Anil Baijal called for inspections and so far, 7,000 challans  have been issued to eateries in south Delhi for violating health and safety rules.

The Delhi Fire Service Act 2007 (Delhi Act 2 of 2009) and Delhi Fire Service Rules 2010 have as many stringent rules as loopholes. For instance, today, strangely, only 400 out of 5,000 eat-outs have fire safety licenses. This is because only restaurants with a seating capacity of above 50 need to be issued NOCs. Thus, only those can be inspected!

On the other hand, 4,528 licences were issued sans NOCs to other eateries that claimed seating for 48-49 people, even though they have dance floors for 400 to 500. And even in a 48-seat restaurant, a random inspection found bar stools blocking fire exits, bad signage and staircases cluttered with furniture.

The last major fire in December was at Metro Hospital and Cancer Institute in Preet Vihar. According to the Delhi Fire Services, it did not have an NOC!

When the first fire safety law was put in place in 1983, much of the city had already been constructed. Inspections themselves seem to be seen askance, as they are viewed “as a form of license raj”, according to Delhi Fire Brigade chief G.C. Mishra. The density, close construction as well as neglect of safety norms make Delhi a tinderbox.

Bengaluru

Silicon city got into the beyond-fire-hazards-in-eateries mode too just a day after the Kamala Mills restaurant tragedy. The Karnataka Department of Fire and Emergency Services began a quick fire audit of hotels, restaurants and pubs across the city under the BBMP limits.

MN Reddi, DGP of Police, Department of Fire and Emergency services declared that a number of pubs were “illegal” and possessed no NOCs. Officials were firm that NOCs would not be issued unless safety measures were in place.

Indiranagar citizens protested against a number of posh Bengaluru areas, decrying rooftop pubs and bars and commercial activities, especially eateries in residential localities that disturbed the locality during New Year celebrations. It was a literal gherao that helped them to solve problems that they had raised through a number of years of heavy protesting, according to Citizen Matters. Notices were issued by the BBMP to various illegal rooftop restaurants and bars that violated legal and safety norms.

While some voluntary efforts are in place, it is puzzling that the Carlton Towers tragedy of 2010 has not really made transformational change in official inspections, even though citizens are clamouring for it. In 2016 , a survey by the fire and emergency department had noted that at least 15,048 high-rise buildings in the city could be classified as hazardous.  

Kolkata

The Kolkata State Fire and Emergency department also got into quick restaurant action. A special drive at Park Street area was launched, where a large number of people congregate on New Year’s Eve.

Kolkata has faced its own share of horrific fire incidents. Last year, in Badsha, a popular food joint, one employee lost his life in a fire. It was being run without an NOC for three years. Although it had approval for only two gas cylinders, the kitchen had stored six. A civic trade license department official explained that a part of Raja S.C. Mullick Road, on which Badsha is located, is choked with food joints or eateries, posing real risks.

Kolkata Medical College faced a fire accident in the fifth floor in July last year. It was brought under control within 45 minutes, but it brought back the ugly memories of hospital fire incidents in the past three years. As hospitals do not have a “composite fire-fighting plan” and there are many loopholes, the issues have gone beyond control.

In July, 2017, West Bengal Fire and Emergency Services department launched an online platform to issue fire safety certificates and licenses upon compliance with the West Bengal Fire Service Act.

Sadly, the vulnerability of hospitals in particular to fire tragedies, owing largely to inadequate firefighting equipment, lack of trained personnel and prevention/rescue mechanisms is not restricted to one city as this report shows.

Chennai

No, Chennai restaurants did not face major fire hazards last year. But the fire incident in the Chennai Silks building in May 2017 brought to light the fact that more than 245 commercial buildings, including shopping complexes, banks and hospitals were not following safety norms; this was borne out by information from the Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services (TNFRS).

In the cluttered commercial areas of T. Nagar, Purasawalkam and Parry’s Corner, there is a woeful lack of fire-fighting systems, automatic fire detectors and sprinklers, identified during surprise fire-safety audits.

The TNFRS annual report of 2010 identified that electrical short circuits have led to more than 75% fire accidents. When more electrical appliances are added to the same old wires, they tend to get overloaded and generate sparks. Private firms, even when they amass crores, do not like to spend on replacement of junction boxes with ‘flame-retardant’ boxes that can limit the sparks, according to R Natraj, former Director General of Police (DGP), fire and safety wing.

Moreover, the TNFRS has limited powers, and instead of suspending licenses, just sends notices to rule violators and reports to licensing authorities. Instead, even a temporary suspension of license for 48 hours would spur building owners to follow rules.

North Chennai seemed to show the maximum violations, mainly because there are many registered as residential complexes but have converted to commercial ones.

Even in residential buildings, there is no independent initiative. Residential associations do not collect money to install fire safety machinery, though people are willing to spend money for lifts!

A common issue

All over the urban landscape, then, fire hazards seem to be just waiting to happen. And it is not just the big cities or commercial complexes. In Allahabad, more than 70% of vehicles carrying school children were found to lack even the most basic fire fighting equipment. In Chandigarh, government buildings and even the office of Chandigarh Police headquarters have been issued notices over lapses in fire safety norms. In Srinagar, the November fire that raged through the Khanqah i Mou’la shrine has raised questions over precautionary measures in place at all places of worship in the state.

The list could go on. And urban India will continue to be a tinderbox waiting to explode anytime till there is a serious blow to the happy collusion between indifferent citizens and apathetic or powerless officials.

[Satarupa Sen Bhattacharya, Consulting Editor at Citizen Matters, also contributed to the story]

About Revathi Siva Kumar 28 Articles
Revathi Siva Kumar is a freelance writer based in Bengaluru.