Surat fire a shrill alarm, but has the city really woken up?

More than 5,000 unauthorised constructions have been demolished in the crackdown following the horrific fire in a Surat coaching centre in May, but in a city that has routinely legalised illegal buildings and never looked inside to check compliance with fire guidelines, is the present knee-jerk reaction really enough?

The portents for a potential major fire disaster were visible all over Surat. Especially with the city’s woefully ill-equipped fire service. The fire tenders that reached the Takshashila Arcade on May 24 to put out the fire in a coaching class situated in the roof of the building, had ladders that could only go up to 35 metres. Many of the 22 teenagers who died in the fire that day lost their lives when they jumped off the roof in panic. The fire personnel did not even have nets to catch them. As irony would have it, the city corporation received a German made fire engine with a turntable ladder that can reach a height of 55 metres 48 hours after the fire.

Surat is typical of Gujarat, where the entire development paradigm begins and ends with indiscriminate real estate growth. This is largely the result of rapid and unplanned urbanisation and heavy intra as well as inter-state migration, which has put huge pressure on the real estate resources and other public services in the cities. Unauthorised constructions are rampant in all the major cities of Gujarat.

The Takshashila Arcade in Surat’s Sarthana suburb, for instance, had been approved as a three-storey building. The fourth floor that was a terrace was later covered by an unauthorised dome, with a single staircase leading to it, under which the students prepared, ironically, for admissions to architecture and design institutes.

The countrywide outcry over the tragedy, which Gujarat Chief Secretary JN Singh described as a “bad wake-up call”, forced the Gujarat government to order fire safety audits in Surat and other cities.

In Surat alone, within 48 hours, the municipal corporation served notices on over 1,800 buildings to install fire safety systems or face closure. Over half have complied so far. By the middle of June, more than 5,000 unauthorised constructions in as many buildings had been demolished.

Fire safety audits

“In all, more than 14.6 lakh square feet of space has been opened up till June 10th,” Surat’s Chief Fire Officer Basant Parikh shared. In fact, the Surat fire department has been in hyperactive crackdown mode ever since the Takshashila incident. As many as 2,019 coaching centres had been surveyed and 1,819 issued notices as on June 18th, Parikh said, adding that 916 of them had already been sealed.

“In order to ensure that there is a double-check on fire safety, we are bringing in third party audit of all buildings as well as deploying fire volunteers to assist the fire department,” Basant Parikh said. With a staff of just 1,000 to cover the whopping 350 square km of Surat city, the fire department will now add three fire stations in areas which had none so far, and acquire four more hydraulic platforms to add to the three that it presently has.

As many as 122 textile markets in Surat, which is a major hub of synthetic textiles manufacturing accounting for nearly 60 per cent of the country’s total production, were surveyed since May 24th. 77 of them were issued notices with a seven-day ultimatum to fulfil fire safety requirements. Similarly, 37 commercial complexes were surveyed and 19 issued notices. “We had sealed 20 commercial buildings even before the Takshashila incident,” Parikh said.

There are hospitals, too, that have been functioning without adequate fire safety. After notices to them, 40 hospitals installed fire safety systems, “after we released newspaper advertisements cancelling their Building Use permissions,” Parikh said.

What is less known is the fact that the Takshashila tragedy in fact occurred six months after a crackdown on 914 properties of which 440 were asked to install fire safety systems, and 39 sealed in December, following a coaching centre fire that left a student and a teacher dead. This fire safety audit had then missed the Takshashila Arcade.

This time around, not just Surat, but municipal corporations across Gujarat ordered fire safety audits of 9,965 buildings after the May 24 fire and slapped notices on 9,395 of them for lacking in basic fire safety measures. “These numbers not only speak of negligence but also rampant corruption,” said retired Gujarat bureaucrat Ravi Saxena, who is credited with framing an exhaustive infrastructure vision document 2020 under the Keshubhai Patel Government in the late 90s.

Legalising the illegal

According to the 2011 Census, nearly 80 per cent of the total population of Surat district lived in the city (81 per cent in Ahmedabad district). In fact, Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat and Rajkot districts account for 58 per cent of the state’s urban population. Overall, 46 per cent of Gujarat’s nearly six crore population live in the cities, with Surat having the highest population density of 1,376 people per square km. Ahmedabad has a population density of 890 while the state average is 308, according to the 2011 Gujarat Census.

What was the response of the powers-that-be in Gujarat to this phenomenal and haphazard urban real estate growth that happened to cater to this rapidly rising urban population? They simply allowed it to happen, and when unauthorised constructions became rampant, legalised it. Three successive state governments — of Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel, Narendra Modi and now Vijay Rupani — went on regularising illegal constructions.

First came, the Gujarat Regularisation of Unauthorised Development Act, 2000, by the BJP Government under Keshubhai Patel, which provided for regularising unauthorised constructions against payment of what was termed ‘impact fees’. The government then had given an assurance in the Gujarat High Court that this was a one-time exception, since demolishing lakhs of illegal structures could cause huge social and economic disruption. Yet, it soon became the norm, as the scheme was given extension by succeeding governments.

When the 2011 version of the Gujarat Regularisation of Unauthorised Development Act was enacted by the Narendra Modi-led state government, there were an estimated 25 lakh unauthorised structures in Gujarat. More recently, in 2017, the Vijay Rupani Government introduced the Gujarat Land Revenue (Amendment) Bill, 2017, which according to Education Minister and State Government Spokesperson Bhupendrasinh Chudasama was to regularise seven lakh properties constructed on agricultural land in return for a one-time payment.

“This is a classic case of institutional corruption,” said Ravi Saxena. “You are regularising illegal structures by collecting impact fees, but what about the impact they cause or have already caused?”

In a typical knee jerk reaction after the Surat fire, the government ordered the closure of all coaching centres across the state till fire safety regulations were implemented in the buildings they operate from. Ironically, 36,000 government schools in Gujarat with 75 lakh students have no or inadequate fire safety systems. State Education Minister Bhupendrasinh Chudasama admits this and says the government has taken it up on a priority basis.

Lessons from the past    

Surat has had its share of tragedies in the past. The most horrendous being the plague outbreak 25 years ago. That outbreak claimed 56 lives, which were reported. There was little count of the exact number of those who died in the epidemic that swept the city. Already a filthy city, the plague gave Surat the tag of being the filthiest in the country. It took months to clean up the place.

The then new municipal commissioner of Surat S R Rao realized that just a clean-up would not help in preventing a next time. The root of the problem lay in unchecked illegal constructions and launched a massive demolition drive. Such was its impact that the people themselves joined in demolishing encroaching parts of their buildings. The Surat Municipal Corporation then just had to mark out the illegal portions with white chalk and the rest was taken care of by the people themselves.

In a few years, Surat became the cleanest and swankiest and most liveable city in Gujarat, with wide clean roads, flashy commercial complexes and malls, bridges, flyovers and green patches at several places. Some new areas of Surat like Vesu, VIP Road, New City Lights, to name a few, resembled a modern western metropolis.

But Municipal Commissioner Suryadevra Ramachandra Rao (Surat’s historical name was Suryapur) perhaps forgot to look inside the hundreds of buildings, even as he demolished those which illegally encroached the streets or the sky. Hidden inside and between hundreds of old and new buildings are numerous tales of fire safety violations. The builders don’t bother much and those in charge of implementation often turn a blind eye to the violations. Absent or non-functional fire safety gear, scary maze of open mangled electric wires hanging at various places, single narrow entry and exit gates are a common site in many of these buildings, making them a virtual death trap in case of a fire.

When the administration ordered closure of coaching centres, what they forgot was that the coaching centres co-existed with nursing homes and hospitals, lawyers’ chambers and doctors’ clinics, restaurants and dance classes in the very same commercial buildings. At times, with paan shops and beauty salons and barber shops on the ground floor and illegal basements. All freely violating fire safety norms.

This, when the Surat Municipal Corporation has the second highest budget in the state, a whopping Rs 5,750 crore. Oxford Economics, a global forecaster, has said Surat will be the fastest growing city from 2019 to 2035, while City Mayors Foundation, a global think-tank on urban affairs says Surat is the fourth fastest growing city globally. Surat is also ranked fourth in Narendra Modi’s Smart City Mission.

The question is, where will the city figure, if it is ranked in terms of fire safety measures in the same buildings that are showcased as a sign of its growth and prosperity.

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