In the past decade several Indian cities have experienced disastrous fire accidents that have claimed several lives. The latest such incident at a coaching centre in Surat resulted in the death of 20 young students while several others were seriously injured.
A report from India Today, says that Mumbai itself has seen twelve major fires in the past six months. Twelve people were killed in a massive fire that broke out at a snack shop in Saki Naka in December; four died after a fire broke out in a residential complex in Marol; film studio Cine Vista was gutted in a massive fire in Kanjur, killing a technician; two firemen were injured in a fire that broke out in an industrial area in Andheri; a massive fire broke out inside a chemical factory in Asalfa village; five people lost their lives when a commercial building in Goregaon caught fire; the income tax office in the Scindia House building was also affected by fire. These are just incidents that have occurred recently in Mumbai. In Delhi, 17 people fell victim to a fire that swept through a five-floor hotel and nine lost their lives in a multistorey commercial complex in Bangalore.
The recent fire at a coaching centre in Surat has raised alarm bells in many institutions. Citizens in Vizag, which is considered to be an institutional home for many students, are worried that coaching centres in the city display an attitude of sheer negligence towards fire safety.
According to a report from The Hindu, “Many coaching centres are located in narrow streets and alleys, in densely populated areas.” At first glance, it seems like the government is helpless in taking appropriate action against such coaching classes, as they are largely an unregulated sector. But it does make you wonder, if fire safety audits done with due diligence on a periodic basis would help promote safety in such institutions.
A concerned parent who wishes to remain unnamed, shared his experience of visiting a coaching class in Chennai where his daughter is admitted and his experience will reinforce the feeling that another incident like the Surat fire is just around the corner.
He said, “The condition of the building seems to be very precarious. It has four floors and each floor has seven classrooms, partitioned with wooden, plastic or ply sheets. The passage to each room is hardly three feet wide. Each class has around 60 students, quite in contrast to their assurances that it would not be more than 40.
There is a single lift in the building which has a capacity of six person and the staircases are three feet wide. During the evening hours, at any given point of time, there will be 400 students on a floor. Any fire accident such as that in Surat and the resulting stampede can have fatal consequence for all involved. The teachers and non-teaching staff are the first at the exit when classes finish and the few private guards that are there, remain to be of no use. How the authorities can turn a blind eye to the situation and how permissions or clearances are given on a yearly basis, is a puzzle. There needs to be a proper investigation and it will require the public’s attention.”
Situations such as these seem to be commonplace across cities in India and unless concerned citizens take some initiative, we are not going to see a change.
Assessing the fire safety standards of an organisation or residence is an important exercise which can be accomplished by a fire safety audit, which evaluates a particular building for compliance with the National Building Code of India, as well as relevant Indian standards and the legislation enacted by State governments and local bodies, on fire prevention, protection and life safety measures. Municipal corporations and local bodies are responsible for providing fire services in many states, but due to lack of resources many such services are ill equipped to provide sufficient fire safety cover.
Renowned activist Anil Galgali has filed numerous right to information (RTI) queries requesting information on fire audits done in Mumbai, but there has been no disclosure of information on this matter so far. Under the RTI Act, information on fire audits conducted by the Mumbai fire brigade have to be disclosed and their failure to do so sheds poor light on their transparency and commitment to a safer Mumbai.
In spite of a complaint filed by Mr Galgali on 13 April 2018 the Mumbai fire brigade has not yet disclosed the report on fire safety audits. According to him, these audit reports are vital for a safer Mumbai and the non-disclosure of this information is of serious consequence. The fire brigade’s inaction is turning out to be life threatening for Mumbaikars, he said in a statement.
Mr Galagli has confirmed that there is an officer nominated and authorised in each of the 34 fire stations to carry out inspection of buildings in their particular areas, which is why it is surprising that they have no information on the progress of fire audits. He even took up the matter with former municipal commissioner Ajoy Mehta by sending him a formal complaint about the delaying tactics employed by the fire brigade.
Taking this a step further and emphasising the need for transparency, Mr Galgali expressed the need for names of buildings and societies not following the process of a fire audit, to be listed on the fire brigade’s website. He believes this would at least instill a sense of shame in them, perhaps forcing them to act for the benefit of their fellow residents.
FICCI-Pinkerton’s India Risk Survey of 2018 draws attention to the “under-equipped fire services in the country.” A study sponsored by the Union ministry of home affairs in the same year came to a similar conclusion. It found that out of the 8,550 fire stations that are needed in the country, a little more than 2,000 are in place, which is a shortage of about 65 per cent. According to the report, urban areas alone require an additional 4,200 fire stations just to meet the minimum standard for response time. The report has outlined the sad state of fire-fighting infrastructure in India and unless the shortfall is addressed, cities and villages in India will continue to remain live tinderboxes waiting for a spark.
According to the ministry of home affairs, there is a large deficiency of fire-fighting infrastructure in 144 towns with population over 1 lakh each. Although the government in 2009-13 had given financial assistance of Rs176 crore to streamline the fire services and supplement the modernisation efforts across states, it now seems apparent that either the funding was poorly utilised or was not enough in the first place.
Other than maintaining a proper fire-fighting infrastructure and having a proper budget to do so, another important aspect lies in building consciousness among citizens about fire safety and prevention.
One simple way of spreading awareness would be to have periodic fire safety workshops in localities, schools, and workplaces with active participation from locally elected representatives. There are many offices or high rise buildings that have expensive and advanced fire-fighting mechanisms but hardly any person has been trained in the knowledge of using them. Furthermore, lack of regular maintenance of such equipment, which might be a result of insufficient knowledge, adversely affects its functionality.
We have lost far too many lives by not being prepared or properly trained. Lives have also been lost due to illegal constructions that the authorities have somehow missed or intentionally overlooked. Are we prepared for another fire outbreak? It sure does not seem like it. Unless fire safety is taken seriously by authorities and citizens alike, such incidents are bound to recur more frequently. Citizens need to take an active interest in learning about fire safety and prevention, while fire safety departments need to enforce safety audits periodically and then subsequently take action against erring establishments.
Learn About Fire Safety
For spreading awareness on fire-safety, Moneylife Foundation has organised a small workshop on Friday, 14th June with Mr Shivajirao Bagat, deputy controller of civil defence Mumbai. If you would like to learn how to stay safe from fires, please do register: https://www.moneylife.in/event/245.html)