I remember a conversation at home sometime in 1979 or 1980, when I was a little girl and automatic lifts were rare. It was after dinner and dad was shaking his head in horror telling someone how such lifts are dangerous as music director Vasant Desai (composer of several of V. Shantaram’s musicals) had died tragically some years ago, crushed in a lift accident. That bit of information horrified me then and left me mildly phobic about lifts.

Perverse as life is, I encounter weird lift incidents quite frequently. I have been stuck midway between floors with my toddler son, waited till doors were prised open and jumped out across the dark cavity of the lift shaft. I’ve learnt the real meaning of claustrophobia while being stuck in a hot, dark lift while the mechanic took his time responding to the alarm bell.

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My husband, however, thinks he’s the one who has been singled out for elevator trauma. He’s been caught in a Schindler lift hurtling down at top speed and hitting the floor with a huge thud. Recently, he was just stepping into the lift of our building, when both doors closed in and bumped the sides of his head before opening out again. In our previous apartment complex, the desperate shriek of the lift’s alarm bell would rent the air several times a day, as some resident would get trapped in the lift, typically during power outages.

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In January 2010, Mohammad Afzal, an activist and crusader for lift safety in buildings, perused the records of the public works department of Maharashtra, under the Right to Information (RTI). He found that the Bombay Lifts Act 1939 and the Bombay Lift Rule 1958 require that the PWD is supposed to inspect every lift in Mumbai-Pune-Thane twice every year. The maintenance contractor is supposed to check the lift once a month. Given the number of lifts in Mumbai, the number of PWD engineers was woefully inadequate and mathematically each lift’s turn to be checked would come only once in four years.

Afzal filed a public interest litigation against the state, which prompted an increase in the number of engineers. Despite that, today for 86,550 lifts in Mumbai, there are 37 engineers. Assuming no other leave except Sundays, that still means 15 inspections per engineer per day—practically impossible given the time required to file reports, investigate accidents. Afzal is also questioning whether the 21 new engineers inducted are qualified to test elevators or have they been inducted as an eyewash.

The state government formed a committee of 10 members, three of whom were representatives of lift companies. They recommended that internationally lifts are inspected only once in two years, so that should be good enough. “I told them, why not make it once in four years, that way you can be free of work," Afzal told me in a phone conversation from Mumbai.

The most common reason for accidents and breakdowns are technical faults. A friend who is a marketing professional in Bangalore got stuck between floors with his four-year-old daughter inside the Schindler lift of his brand new building for a tense 25 minutes. The builder had to be summoned who sent someone to the terrace to mechanically push the lift to the next level. As per the instructions inside the lift, however, occupants must not do anything when the lift car gets stuck between floors, as it will start moving automatically. Why then did it require someone to push it mechanically?

Shashank Shanbhag, my batchmate from Indian Institute of Management, was moving from Mumbai to Bangalore. Despite warnings, the packers in Mumbai overloaded the elevators of his high-rise building in Prabhadevi while transporting the goods down to the ground floor. Both lifts broke down. Residents were furious, as was the builder, and Shanbhag had to pay a fine of Rs50,000. In this case, the lift should have flashed an overloaded sign and not moved.

Technical flaws have been responsible for 35 fatal accidents in Mumbai alone in the past four years, according to Afzal. This happens when someone is entering and the lift car moves, leaving the person to fall into the shaft and crash to his death many feet below. Or when the doors open while the car is in motion, resulting in the occupant getting crushed between the car and the landing floor. That’s what killed a Gurgaon teenager, a 50-year-old lady in Borivali, Mumbai, a three-year-old in Bangalore, two men in separate incidents in Pune and many more between 2008 till now. How difficult can it be, in an age when mankind’s technical progress is staggering, to build perfectly safe elevators?

One view is that safety is compromised by penny-pinching building societies that outsource lift maintenance to untrained mechanics of the unorganized sector. This is because the maintenance contracts of elevator companies are prohibitively expensive, which the average residential society cannot afford.

Archaic laws, unqualified contractors, indifferent management. The tiresomely familiar Indian story. As always, it is left to consumers themselves to be vigilant, aware of safety related issues and do a due diligence with their building societies. Because in this case, it could be a life and death matter.

Vandana Vasudevan is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and writes on mass urban consumer issues. Your comments are welcome at toughcustomer@livemint.com