Kolkata: A hospital fire in south Kolkata that killed 92 people, including 89 patients, has pushed the West Bengal government into again promising tougher oversight of the safety of private as well as public institutions such as shopping malls, offices, schools, colleges and hospitals.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee has sought weekly reports on the fire safety status of all such buildings.
Just a year ago, similar promises were made and assurances given after a devastating fire in the Stephen Court building in Park Street claimed 43 lives.
Within 24 hours of the hospital disaster, the fire and emergency department, the state health department and the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC), which were responsible for checking and monitoring fire safety, again formed fresh committees for carrying out inspections and pledged to bring the errant to book.
The health department has laid down seven points to base its vigilance and monitoring of healthcare institutions. The fire department under additional director general Debapriya Biswas has formed a five-member committee empowered to lodge on-the-spot first information reports with the police.
Banerjee has set upon herself the task of going through weekly reports of inspections and keeping a tab on general supervision.
The accident in Amri hospital in Dhakuria area has shown that promises made in the past have not been kept. Amri caught the attention of the fire department for flouting guidelines as early as 29 August.
Heavy toll: Colleagues mourn the death of nurses who lost their lives while trying to save patients at Amri Hospital, on Sunday in Kolkata. PTI
“A routine inspection showed glaring deviations from norms,” according to a retired fire service official. A basement car park had been converted into a two-tier structure—one accommodating the radiotherapy unit and cubicles for doctors, and the other serving as a godown, crammed with inflammable materials such as chemicals, jerry cans of spirits, oxygen cylinders and wooden furniture.
Moreover, firefighting equipment such as fire extinguishers, smoke alarms and sprinklers were not functioning in the basement.
Despite this, the fire department did not slap a closure notice on the hospital. Instead, it allowed the authorities three months to set their house in order. This deadline expired at the end of November, but no team returned for a follow-up, said the fire service official quoted earlier.
A team from the city’s municipality, which has independent infrastructure and staff to conduct inspections of buildings before renewing trade licences, also looked the other way when they found serious irregularities in the basement, said an official from the building department of KMC who did not want to be identified.
“The provision of having a radiotherapy unit in the basement was there in the building plan, but it is not possible and humanly impractical to check every temporary addition and alteration being made to a structure post construction. There were two accesses to the basement. We have checked on that, but how are we supposed to know if the access areas were being blocked or not?” asked Debasish Kar, director general (building), Kolkata Municipal Corporation.
Though civic authorities have pointed to a severe staff shortage, fire services minister Javed Khan said a staff crunch won’t come in the way of conducting inspections.
“We will recruit men from civil defence, disaster management and carry on with daily inspections,” Khan said, adding he is supposed to compile the data and submit a weekly report to the chief minister.
The state government last took action against an errant healthcare institution in this regard in 2008. The government cancelled a no-objection certificate of Ruby General Hospital after a check showed lapses in fire safety measures.
“We took action against many buildings, hospitals, markets for not maintaining the guidelines,” said opposition leader Surya Kanta Mishra, who was the then health minister in the Left-ruled regime. “I cannot specify the number, but it was over 30.”
Mishra said West Bengal is one of the few states in India that has implemented a Clinical Establishment Act to check the safety and security aspects of clinics and hospitals.
“The health department issues and renews licence under this Act every year, and the health department can carry out inspections and cancel licence if the fire department complains against any particular case,” Mishra said.
Arguing on similar lines, the health department is trying to roll the ball to the court of the fire department and the municipality. However, it is finding it difficult to explain the role of a government official, the director of medical education, who by virtue of the state government’s 1% share in the hospital, is a member of the Amri board. “Government officers hold many key portfolios in many organizations,” a health department official said on condition of anonymity. “But does that mean we should be held responsible for each and every lapse they (organizations) make?”
As an exemplary punishment, the government is considering if it can take back the land given to the original building of Amri at a token Rs 1 in 1994.