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Shyamal Banerjee/Mint
Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

Help! Lifts are only going down

The lift Acts needs more teeth as negligence results in nothing short of death.

There is a new development in the Otis lifts of our building. As soon as you press the floor number, the doors go wild. They clang shut and open. Again, close and open halfway. This goes on for a minute, as though Alibaba’s Open Sesame programme has developed a bug. The loud metallic sound and the uncertainty of what’s going to happen next is scary.

Apart from the changes in the sexual offences law that are currently being undertaken, there are other death-causing laws that demand attention. The lift Acts are some of them. To make matters complicated, there is one for each state. Broadly they lay down the following rules:

* Before they are operational, lifts need a licence from the lift inspector who is the electrical inspector of the district.

* Lifts have to be inspected before grant of a licence and every three years.

* The owner of the lift, i.e the builder or the resident welfare association has to undertake maintenance activity every six months and report to the inspector.

* Lifts older than 10 years have to be replaced.

What’s wrong with this law?

Ancient and irrelevant: Many states have not amended their lift Act for a few decades while in the meantime, lift technology has changed and the way lifts are maintained has changed. The West Bengal Lifts Act is of 1955. The Karnataka lift laws are of 1974. A megapolis such as Mumbai which has close to 100,000 lifts (including Pune, Thane and Navi Mumbai) and is synonymous in popular imagination with multi-storeyed buildings, is governed by two archaic lift laws—The Bombay Lift Act, 1939 and the Bombay Lift Rules, 1958. The idea of housing societies was not prevalent when these laws were made. So, issues such as maintenance of lifts by outside contractors and penny pinching by housing societies who scrimp on getting trained engineers are not covered by these laws, leaving them inadequate.

Penalties not deterrents: The penalties laid down in these Acts are mild monetary ones with no threat of imprisonment.

Incomplete coverage: There are some parts of the country which are not governed by any lift laws. In July 2011, when a 32 year-old man was crushed to death by the lift in his residential building, it was brought to light that Noida and Greater Noida, twin cities on Delhi’s borders, which are part of the National Capital Region, were not covered under any lift laws!

The laxity of the law is helped along by the fact that there is a shortage of engineers to do checks. In January 2010, Mohammad Afzal, a Mumbai activist for lift safety in buildings, found through Right to Information that the number of Public Works Department engineers were woefully inadequate and mathematically each lift’s turn to be checked would come only once in four years. Karnataka State Electrical Inspectorate officials said in a news report that a 100-strong contingent of electrical inspectors and engineers were not enough to maintain all lifts.

Here’s what needs to change:

Mandatory, not recommended guidelines: Today, lifts are supposed to be installed according to a “recommended" set of safety guidelines by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) and monitoring of whether even these are being followed is almost nil. The BIS norms for lift installation need to be mandatory, not just recommendations.

Stricter penalties: The lift Acts needs more teeth. Since negligence results in nothing short of death, the punishment for an offender must be far more stricter.

One single law: Electricity may be in the concurrent list of the constitution, and that may have been suitable in the pre-liberalized era. Lifts might not be that common in India then, so the lift inspection job was given to the electricity inspector of the district and the Electricity Act, 1910, superseded lift Acts. But a new modern India which has seen a boom in the construction of high rises needs a different approach towards lifts and their safe operation. Currently, each state has its own lift laws, some archaic, some upgraded, each with different norms about how often inspection should be done. Lifts need one central law that can be uniformly implemented without ambiguity.

Stricter implementation: Sometimes licences to operate the lifts itself are not obtained. A Times of India news report of 10 May 2012 states that 8% of Bangalore’s lifts were unlicenced. Until there is a central law, at least the implementation of the existing lift laws needs far stricter implementation. In all my years of living in different high rises in Delhi and Mumbai, I have never seen a lift inspector. I have only seen the maintenance engineers of the lift company when there is a problem.

Improved public awareness: Lifts are supposed to have a maintenance certificate which shows when they were last checked hung inside the lift for users to see. They are supposed to be fire resistant. Every building has to have a fire lift too for emergencies. But since we are very poor at prevention and only react after a disaster takes place, few are aware of these rules. Public ignorance allows building owners and law enforcers to exploit the situation. Maybe as users, we should take a small step this weekend and ask whoever is in charge to hang the last maintenance certificate inside the lift.

Vandana Vasudevan is a Delhi-based writer on urban consumer and civic experiences. Your comments are welcome at toughcustomer@livemint.com

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