By ANSHUMAN BHARGAVA:
“Fire Tragedies We all are exposed to the possibilities of a big fire hazard anytime because most of our public places are not well maintained and often the norms are silently bypassed till something big happens.”
“We don’t learn from our mistakes. Fire hazards take thousands of lives in India every year and ironically 90 per cent of them are preventable, which means they are caused due to neglect and violations.”
AN NGO working in the field of fire safety and prevention has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, demanding that a strong law be enacted to prevent fire tragedies in the country that happen with ominous frequency. The United Human Rights Federation (UHRF) made the demand in the wake of a fire in Gujarat’s Surat city recently that led to the death of 23 students and teachers at a coaching class operating on the top floor of the building, most probably ‘illegally,’ i.e. without abiding by the safety norms. “In February, 17 people died in a fire in a Karol Bagh hotel and now it is Surat, where innocent students have been killed in a fire tragedy. How many more fire accidents will we see before we get a strong fire law?” UHRF President Santosh Bagla said.
“We recently wrote to PM Modi bring a strong law to prevent fire tragedies. We had even demanded that the BJP include it in its election manifesto,” he said. Bagla said unfortunately, no political party has so far shown a strong will to bring stringent laws despite the Supreme Court’s directions in this connection. “India’s growth story cannot be complete without a central law in respect of fire prevention, life safety and fire protection which could cover all the States and Union Territories,” UHRF Secretary Arun Pal Singh said. “Violating fire safety laws is one of the major causes of fire accidents in India… every building in the country needs to comply with the National Building Code, 2016.
The Supreme Court has observed in various hearings and judgements about non-implementation of fire safety rules properly in the buildings which results in lots of fire accidents and loss of lives and property,” the NGO wrote to the Prime Minister. It is not just about Karol Bagh and Surat even. Prior to that, we had the infamous Upahaar Cinema tragedy in Delhi that killed over two score innocent people and the case dragged on for decades. In Kolkata, an office building in posh Park Street area saw a major fire that killed many ordinary citizens. It was followed by another fire incident in a famous city hospital that left many people dead.
A lot of ‘stringent action’ was promised by the State Government but it is highly unlikely that much was done. Elsewhere, a mega congregation of eunuchs saw a major fire too in 2011, again in Delhi that led to the loss of 16 lives. Another 15 students were killed in a hostel fire in Arunachal Pradesh in 2010. In Punjab, a whopping 400 plus people, including several children were scalded to death during a school function fire in 1995, and the victim’s families haven’t got justice yet. There was a recent fire in a hotel in Indore as well, though luckily people escaped. Last year, a café in Mumbai saw a major fire that killed many revellers. It was illegally functioning from a rigged up facility on the top floor of a building, much like the Surat coaching centre. In Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and perhaps in all States of the country, hundreds of coaching classes run that way.
These are but only some of the recent incidents that are still fresh in our memory. Thousands of big and small fire incidents happen all the time in the country – in marriage pandals, in hospitals, schools, offices, malls, cinemas, hotels, hostels, fairs, factories, godowns – leading to uncountable loss of human lives and property. We face these years after year, but till now we have not been able to stem this deadly trend. Human rights bodies, courts, NGOs, experts, social workers – every group of stakeholders have tried to push the issue and ensure that these don’t happen repeatedly, but here we are – still battling situations like that in Surat.
What can be more ignoble than the fact that a major commercial city of the country in a developed State like Gujarat doesn’t even have a suitably sized ladder with its fire department to rescue the trapped victims inside the building? Efficient management was the only key here that could have saved every life. It is only a painful reminder of our poor work ethics, mismanagement and negligence. Lives of ordinary people are little valued in the country, so the deaths will soon be forgotten and the chapter closed. But will that change the working and management of those hundreds of establishments which operate in violation of all safety norms? Most likely not! And this is the misfortune of our country. We don’t learn from our mistakes.
Fire hazards take thousands of lives in India every year and ironically 90 per cent of them are preventable, which means they are caused due to neglect and violations. We all are exposed to the possibilities of a big fire hazard anytime because most of our public places are not well maintained and often the norms are silently bypassed till something big happens. Even the residential apartments we live in often don’t have a functional fire fighting system in place. Those fitted for name sake decades ago are often found defunct in crisis situations as they are hardly ever maintained, checked and kept oiled. Poor monitoring and lack of accountability provide immunity to the wrongdoers. In fact, most of the establishments like cinemas, hotels and apartment buildings etc. are run by big businessmen, leaders and musclemen and they are not easily disturbed.
Their political heft and nexuses allow these wrongs to continue for years till the cumulative ills of decades shoved under the carpet explode in some catastrophic occurrence. Now, after the Surat fire, as it always happens after major incidents, the Gujarat Government has started all the monitoring and stock-taking activities. Where were they all this time? Making fire arrangements including emergency exists and training the staff etc. is an expensive and tedious process that the management of commercial establishments often tends to skip. The fire department too doesn’t conduct regular drills to keep the staff trained and ready for any emergency.
They don’t have even the necessary equipment in place and the lapses are only exposed during emergencies. By the way, unless very strict action like cancelling license permanently or something of that order is taken against violations, accidents will continue to happen because people will continue to take it easy and relegate the laws to save money and effort. There can be no room for complacency or negligence in matters that directly concern the lives of people and anyone making light of the law should be dealt with strongly. The Government has to wake up to this reality and innovate effective ways to tackle this widespread menace that sits like a blot on the country and retards its growth story.