Fire Traps in India: How Prepared Are We?
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)
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Anonymous Whistleblowers: How Seriously Should We Take Them?
Over the past two days, a second letter by an anonymous whistle-blower addressed to Shaktikanta Das, governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has been doing the rounds of whatsApp groups interested in corporate goings-on. 
 
The letter is dated 22 May 2018 and refers to an earlier letter that was apparently sent to the RBI governor on 8th May. Both letters follow the new trend of corporate insiders using anonymous or pseudonymous letters as an act of vendetta or to vent their frustration with the management. 
 
In the Yes Bank case, we learn that the nominations and remuneration committee has been asked to investigate the matter, although the whistleblower is anonymous. The first letter was discussed at its board meeting on 16th May and the new letter has been circulated to the board, an investigation ordered and the matter is to be placed before the next board meeting in early June. 
 
We further learn from the Bank sources that Brahm Dutt, non-executive chairman of Yes Bank, who is the main target of the first letter, has also provided a detailed explanation of the charges against him to the board. Moneylife has not see the first letter; the second one is mainly about the terms of appointment of the managing director, which are a matter for the regulator and the shareholders to approve. (update, we now have copies of both letters, 31st May 2019)
 
Many of us are inundated with such letters targeting public and private companies, auditors, regulators, government departments and others. As journalists, we ignore rants and follow up on those that are detailed, specific, have a larger public interest or the facts revealed are verifiable and point to serious malfeasance or criminality. Unfortunately, most letters that we receive contain a string of unverifiable allegations with no details to back them. 
 
The big question is: How should the government as well as large, listed companies and their board of directors respond to such letters? 
 
In October 2018, the government through the ministry of personnel, issued a directive to Central ministries directing them to simply file anonymous as well as pseudonymous complaints, saying there was no need to act on them. The Central Vigilance Commission, quoting certain high court orders has issued similar directions in 2016.
 
A careful reading of the guidelines linked above suggests that government departments cannot initiate action on the basis of anonymous /pseudonymous complaints, but can they abdicate responsibility for even investigating details that suggest large-scale corruption or criminality? 
 
Unfortunately, this is exactly what has been happening and this has inflicted a cost that runs into thousands of crores of rupees on the nation in the recent past and a few lakh crore if one takes into account the criminal nexus between bankers, bureaucrats, politicians and industrialists.  
 
In the absence of a proper statute to protect whistle-blowers, this provides a massive escape route to regulators and corporate managements. Consider the following:
 
  • The ICICI whistle-blower was not anonymous and has even posted allegations on a blog that was publicly accessible for over two years. Yet, the board of directors not only refused to investigate the letter,  but shamelessly defended the former managing director and CEO (chief executive officer), Chanda Kochhar, for over two years.  The RBI and capital market regulator, SEBI (Securities & Exchange Board of India) watched in silence. Numerous other whistle-blowers are now providing information on the Kochhar affair and all these are apparently being investigated by multiple investigation agencies. 
     
  • The board of directors of Infrastructure leasing and Financial Services (IL&FS) as well as RBI governor Raghuram Rajan chose to ignore letters from several whistle-blowers all through 2017 and 2018. RC Bhargava of Maruti, a longstanding member of IL&FS board, had considered the pseudonymous letters (written by one Mahesh Inamdar) and decided to treat them as anonymous complaints, although Central government rules simply do not apply to a private entity or conglomerate. IL&FS, with an outstanding debt of nearly Rs100,000 crore, has collapsed and after resolution may inflict a loss of over Rs40,000 crore or more on lenders. 
     
  • The entire financial system is facing the deleterious consequences of that decision by the board, including innocent investors whose mutual fund and provident fund savings are affected. Interestingly, the Serious Frauds Investigation Office (SFIO) no longer has problems investigating anonymous complaints that were made public by Moneylife against its auditors Deloitte, Haskins & Sells.
     
  • Similarly, while SEBI had initially filed away a letter related to the co-location scam or algo-trading manipulation at the National Stock Exchange (NSE), after Moneylife, which also got a copy of the letter made it public, an avalanche of action started, leading to the large-scale changes in the well-entrenched top management. The matter has now led to SEBI indictment of India’s leading Exchange, after nearly four years.
Finally, there is another category of letters that is merely vengeful targeting of individuals. After the IL&FS debacle, I received a series of such letters targeting senior employees but without any credible information to back it up. 
 
The attempt to use the media for settling personal scores is worrying. Since the potential damage from these letters is huge and corporates are led to believe that all media houses are unscrupulous in their use of such information, it can often cause a huge and needless loss of management time. 
 
For instance, a leading accounting firm was the target of internal sabotage in the form of a whistle-blower letter addressed to me. The letter had extrapolated the example of a company diverting funds (which we intend to write about) into a non-existent accounting scandal in what was a blatant attempt to target one partner.  
 
In fact, there wasn’t even a link between that partner and the account. Also, it is not the auditors' job to act as policemen; they are only supposed to record and report wrongdoing or wrong accounting policies by raising red flags in the audit report. 
 
In short, we need a much better whistle-blower ecosystem with statutory protection for genuine persons to expose wrong-doing in government and corporate India. Until then, ignoring anonymous complaints made in public interest will inflict a heavy cost on the nation.  
 
SEBI must make it mandatory for corporate boards to have every whistle-blower complaint investigated by the audit committee; otherwise, the board will end up acting as groupies of incumbent management to bury wrongdoing. The media also has to examine each letter received and make a judgement whether a complaint is merely mud-slinging or truly has public interest implications.
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COMMENTS

Venkatesh Nayak

2 weeks ago

Thanks very much for raising this issue. I am commenting on two issues. First, despite the Second Administrative Reforms Commission recommending that a comprehensive whistleblower law be enacted to cover private sector whistleblowing, the UPA Government brought in a weak law. After going through the Parliamentary Committee process, the law was strengthened considerably but left out purely private sector whistleblowing. While any citizen or NGO can blow the whistle, for the procedures to kick in, it must involve at least one public official. Then came NDA-II which tried to dilute the law by listing all exemptions to transparency given under Section 8(1) of the RTI Act as grounds for prohibiting blowing the whistle. The amendment Bill passed through the Lok Sabha but lapsed as it was not put to vote in the Rajya Sabha. Whether NDA-III will continue to pursue these retrograde amendment remains to be seen. The Whistleblowers Protection Act has been notified in the Gazette but it has not come into force. Rules have not been made for implementing this law and the enforcement date is yet to be announced. A classic case of governmental amnesia to implement laws passed by Parliament. The Companies Act 2013 contains some whistleblower provisions but they are severely limited. There is no comprehensive mechanism for inquiring into private sector whistleblower complaints like the Whistleblowers Protection Act provides. Second, In the former CBI Director, residential diary entries case, the Supreme Court initially asked for the identity of the Whistleblower. However, it did not insist on names after the AGI and the petitioners impressed upon it about the need to inquire into serious complaints of wrong doing instead of hounding the complainant. This is the standard now but it had not been laid down as law either in the Whistleblowers Protection Act or in the SCI judgement. They agreed not to press for the identity of the person who gave the diary to the lawyers and directed that a committee appointed by former Spl. Director and Information Commissioner M L Sharma inquire into the allegations. But they did not approve anonymous whistleblowing in explicit terms. I think if the allegations in an anonymous complaint prima facie indicate material facts that are verifiable about an offence or wrong doing they must be inquired into.

GLN Prasad

2 weeks ago

It is true that DOPT has asked those authorities to file that Anonymous letter, but I have never seen any responsible executive treating those with such contempt. A smart executive always takes them seriously and conducts a basic investigation and then deep into the affairs. I know many cases where many suppressed secrets came into light, but if the authorities are themselves involved, they provide such copy of the letter and ask those alleged to find out about WB and to silence him. This is mostly insider's activity, who knows many things but do not want harassment from the employer and at the same time conscience or jealousy may also be some reasons. But most of the allegations must be true.

RALPH VICTOR RAU

2 weeks ago

In criminal cases we have the concept of a Witness Protection Plan to ensure justice by assuring complete confidentiality to the witness.

To encourage exposure of corporate wrongdoing the nations Corporate / Financial Administration system must similarly provide identity protection to the whistle blower. The main entities like RBI or SFIO having regulatory oversight must each establish a Whistle-blowers Department with a robust and secure process whereby the identity of a whistle blower enjoys protection under a suitably enacted law with severe penalties applied to department members in the event the Whistle-blowers identity is disclosed. The Whistle-blower must be entitled to restitution for any pecuniary loss suffered as a consequence of his/her identity being disclosed.

Hon. Prime Minsters "Na Khaoonga Na Khaane Doonga" scope can thus be expanded from the Government sector to the Private Sector.

Harish Kohli

2 weeks ago

Well written, goes deep into issues. Am sure, somewhere someone in authority will take up what Sucheta writes. The corrupt have to be exposed, the honest have to to be protected.

gcmbinty

2 weeks ago

The article well balanced protecting interests of all. I reinforce the suggestion of Sucheta Dalal, "In short, we need a much better whistle-blower ecosystem with statutory protection for genuine persons to expose wrong-doing in government and corporate India. Until then, ignoring anonymous complaints made in public interest will inflict a heavy cost on the nation." in the light of regular sacrifices of the genuine whistle-blowers who are not compensated for the work done to clean up the corrupt practies.

Traffic Growth on Bandra-Worli Sea-Link only 1% a Year, though No Alternatives
While the BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has embarked on building an expensive costal road by dipping into the Corporation’s substantial reserves, the Mumbai Mobility Forum, an activist group, points out the that the traffic growth on the showpiece Bandra-Worli sea-link is only 1%pa (per annum)—far too low to justify the ambitious project.
 
The coastal road will connect and expand the sea-link on both ends. It was considered a life-saver for car owners, at a time when the city was struggling to cope with growing automobile sales. In fact, the sea-link provided the first major alternative route on the western corridor in nine years, although bad planning lead to severe congestion at both entry and exit points and growing toll rates are a dampener. 
 
The Mumbai Mobility Forum has written to municipal commissioner Praveen Pardeshi asking him to reconsider the basics of the project. The letter has been written in the context of public interest litigations (PILs) filed in the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court against the project. In response to a PIL, the BMC had argued that, “it is extremely necessary - notwithstanding any environmental or livelihood issues - that we must provide an alternative for 60,000 cars per day (total for north and south in 2022 in both directions) to manage traffic congestion in Mumbai.”
 
The coastal road is expected to provide an eight-lane, 29.2-km long freeway that would run along Mumbai's western coastline connecting Marine Lines in the south to Kandivali in the north and is expected to see a growth of only 2%pa in the next 20 years. Moreover, the project will only cater to the needs of elite car owners who can afford big tolls while leaving the rest of Mumbai to deal with public transport. 
 
The Mumbai Mobility Forum points out that the municipal corporation has undertaken this expensive project when more economical alternatives are already being tried out or constructed.  The railways are exploring more AC trains while the construction of a massive underground and above-the-ground metro rail project already has the city dug up across its length. 
 
By way of comparison, the Forum points out that the coastal road aims at a daily ridership of 60,000 vehicles which translates to roughly about 1,00,000 passengers per day whereas Metro III, colloquially known as the Colaba–Bandra-SEEPZ line, has forecast a ridership of 1.4 million people for a 22km stretch. 
 
In the letter, the Forum says that at least 70%-80% of the users of the coastal road would find the Metro and AC trains a far superior option. Its many metro stations such as Dadar, Mahim, Prabhadevi, Worli, Girgaon, Kalbadevi and Colaba offer far better accessibility to metro stations and they are at a walking distance and, hence, that resolves the worry of having to look for a parking space.
 
The Indian Railways, which has been the main provider of public transport, is also continuing to work at expanding the network, increasing passenger carrying capacity and decongestion of stations. 
 
The western railway has a daily ridership of 3.5 million users and a single AC train has achieved a daily ridership of 12,000 in the past 12 months and the number of AC trains are expected to grow to five fully air-conditioned trains or 10 partially air-conditioned trains in the next four  years on the Western Railways. This is expected to achieve a daily ridership of 60,000 commuters.
 
Considering these reasons, AC trains would be a far better alternative to driving back and forth on the coastal road which involves a lot of traffic and crowded roads, each a few kms. 
 
There is a clear need to have a scientific evaluation of all existing public transport initiatives, in conjunction with the disruption of traffic, likely with the construction of the Sewri-Uran Trans-harbour link, to arrive at a holistic picture of Mumbai’s future transport needs. This also needs to factor in the water transport facilities that every government (including the present one, under Union minister Nitin Gadkari) have announced from time to time.   
 
The Forum argues that even if the BMC insists on constructing the coastal road, despite the high environmental cost, a 2+2 lane configuration like the sea-link would make more sense than the grand 8-lane road that is planned, going by traffic data. 
 
The Forum points out that the coastal road will benefit only 1% of Mumbaikars and that too at a great subsidy at the cost of bus networks, footpaths and bicycles. 
 
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COMMENTS

Sanjeev B

3 weeks ago

Simple calculation: 200 hydrofoils * Rs.10 crore per unit = Rs. 2000 crore. Each hydrofoil can carry 100 to 150 passengers. At 2 hours per 30km trip, and 3 roundtrips a day, this fleet can give reliable service for 1.5 lakh to 2.5 lakh commuters per day up and down the western coast at 1/10th the cost of the grand coastal road.

Here are some prices: http://www.seaboats.net/ferries-xidg45938.html

These are large vehicles that will work in almost all weather conditions.

The logic is simple - try with Rs.2000 crore and make it work. If the demand goes up even more then you have so many other things to think about - last mile transport, walkways, water, sanitation, food and recreation - before you start building a grand road for any further increase in traffic. Do not commit to Rs.20000 crore that will get you the same results as a Rs.2000 crore investment!

Sanjeev B

3 weeks ago

The Mumbai Mobility Forum is correct in all these observations. When the Mumbai metro is coming up in a nice, planned, underground design, what is the use of this massively project?

If you look at the virtual rendering of the Mumbai Coastal Road project (search Youtube), the one glaring design fault you will notice is the on and off ramps lead to nowhere. Take the Amarsons Garden ramp, where does it lead to? There is no space at the Parsi General Hospital junction to disperse traffic either towards Breach Candy or towards Napean Sea Road. And there is no way to reach Peddar Road at all. Where are the cars going to disperse?

Similarly with Haji Ali. Look at the renderings, they look so futuristic with multiple layers of flyovers. But where do you go after you get off at Haji Ali? Have the planners seen the width of Tardeo Road? Forget four lanes, it narrows down to one lane after AC Market.

Please don't give us pie in the sky dreams. Please use the money that you have collected for real and simple municipal services like footpaths and dividers that are not broken, and roads that are not lumpy.

Ask any visitor for an honest opinion and they will tell you that the city looks simply uncared for. Fancy tall buildings in Lower Parel and Worli don't make a city world class. Look at the roads as soon as you step out of these gated urban fortresses and you will see the sorry reality.

For a city corporation that is so wealthy, there is not much that the Mumbaikar gets in return. Mumbai feels like a poor cousin even of its closest metro city Pune!

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