During this part of the year in 2017, a fire took away lives of 14 young people in a restaurant in Kamala Mills Compound in Mumbai. And again in December this year, in another major fire accident in an ESIC hospital in Mumbai another six innocent lives have been lost. It doesn’t mean that period in between these two accidents were normal with no casualties being reported. No, fire accidents have been occurring in Mumbai and other parts of the country regularly and the way accidents and their probes are being handled, one can be assured of such events happening in future too. In fact, within six months of Kamala Mills accident eight fire accidents took place in Mumbai itself claiming 22 lives.
Fire accidents take place not because we don’t have stringent laws in place to safeguard the buildings against such accidents. They occur because we are lenient in enforcing those laws. The ‘Fire Services’ has been included as municipal function in the XII Schedule of the Constitution of India in terms of Article 243 (W). It is, therefore, the primary responsibility of the State Governments to collect and compile the data related to fire accidents in high-rise buildings and also to allocate sufficient resources for strengthening and equipping fire services including fire fighting arrangements in the high-rise buildings in their respective jurisdiction.
There are standards on fire fighting/rescue equipment and code of practices on fire safety in various occupancies/ industries including high-rise buildings. The National Building Code of India, published by the Bureau of Indian Standard, covers fire protection, fire prevention and evacuation plans for the safety of occupants in high-rise buildings. The State Governments are expected to adopt these standards in their local building bye- laws. The Central government has also constituted a Standing Fire Advisory Council. This Council recommends suitable measures to upgrade the standards of fire services which also include special equipment for fire-fighting and rescue in high-rise buildings. All these rules and regulations and councils and their recommendation have little value as no one has paid serious attention to implement/enforce them. As a result, we see fire accidents happening with frequent regularity.
Unlike in the past, nowadays we have been seeing frequent announcement by the builders of taller building projects in various cities across the country. For example, in Mumbai Lodhas are planning to build world’s tallest residential building while city’s fire force has fire engine truck ladder which can reach only upto 30thfloor. Mumbai’s tallest building, One Avighna Park, has 61 floors! This shows our preparedness to fight fire accidents.
In case of fire, prevention is the only cure and all efforts should be made in that direction. Recent fire at ESIC hospital in Mumbai shows that even government and its agencies are lax in their approach to ensure fire safety in the government buildings while they should be the ones who should have taken lead in this direction. Just as the government has taken the initiative to make buildings energy efficient similar efforts needed from the government to ensure that buildings are safe from fire threats.
Recent fire at Grenfell tower in UK had received widespread attention of the public and the government was quick enough to respond to public suggestions and comments. The government made immediate changes in building code to prescribe the kind of materials that can be (and that can’t be) used in building construction. But in India even after series fire accidents and loss of lives nothing has changed. Even Fire Safety Audit (FSA) is not being undertaken regularly. Fire Safety Audit (FSA) is found to be an effective tool to assess fire safety standards of an organisation or an occupancy. Unfortunately, we don’t have any clear provisions in any of the safety legislations regarding the scope, objective, methodology and periodicity of a fire safety audit. Remember, after Kamala Mills fire tragedy, the Court had ordered FSA of all the restaurants in the city but even today we can see many restaurants without fire exit routes. The Court had also noticed several shortcomings in Municipal Corporation’s FSA methodology but not corrective measures seemed to have been taken so far.
It should be noted that human lives are more valuable than the cost to be incurred to make buildings safer from fire accidents. Therefore, FSA should be made mandatory all over India and the work should be entrusted to independent agencies. And such audits need to be conducted annually. At the same time there is a need to revisit fire safety audit regulations and make them stringent and their enforcement stricter. Also, there is need to revise our National Building Code to ensure that materials used in construction are fire retardant and don’t cause fire in the buildings. Fire safety should be at the top of the list of our ‘smartness’ agenda.