Mumbai: The Kamala Mills fire tragedy in Mumbai, which claimed the lives of 14 people last week, has spurred the civic administration into action, leading to inspections, demolitions and even the arrest of two people.
However, the fire safety situation is alarming across India as cities are expanding and new retail hubs are coming up.
A ministry of home affairs-sponsored study found that of the minimum 8,559 fire stations needed in the country, only 2,087 are in place, a shortage of 65%. Urban areas alone require an additional 4,200 fire stations just to meet the minimum standard for response time.
There is a close correlation between urbanization, with its associated density and deaths due to fire-related accidents, according to National Crime Records Bureau figures. As many as 17,700 Indians died—48 people every day—due to fire accidents in 2015, of which 10,925 (62%) were women. Most of them were in the highly urbanized states of Maharashtra and Gujarat.
“We are grossly under-prepared,” said Uday Vijayan, founder of Beyond Carlton, who lost his son in the 2010 Carton Towers fire accident in Bengaluru. “Cities are growing so rapidly without any basic infrastructure like fire stations and almost every accident has the same set of gross violations,” he said.
There is also little point in waiting for the government to step up, Vijayan said, because as cities grow more vertical, fighting a fire from outside is quite a task, given the traffic conditions in most Indian cities. “Buildings need in-built fire-fighting equipment like sprinklers and alarms that work. But there is hardly any attention.”
Regular inspections are supposed to ensure the presence of basic fire-fighting equipment as well as compliance with building norms. But there are enough loopholes, such as norms not applying for establishments with a seating capacity of less than 50 people.
“People also view inspections as a form of license raj. There is a lot of resistance,” says Delhi Fire Brigade chief G.C. Mishra.
In the aftermath of the Mumbai accident, a series of inspections were launched in Delhi. However, only about 400 eateries in the national capital have fire safety licences, which means only those can be inspected.
“Our first fire safety law came into place in 1983. By then, much of Delhi had already been built,” said Mishra. “In many Western cities, the fire safety law is almost 150 years old. We are going through the same struggle that they went through,” he said.
While the great fire of Chicago in 1871 or Baltimore in 1904 might have led to the creation of a stringent fire safety regime, India shouldn’t wait for a tragedy to get basic urban planning right, said Madhav Pai of Mumbai-based Ross Centre for Sustainable Cities. “In Mumbai, adequate space could have easily been retained for essential services like fire stations while redeveloping mill land, but the city didn’t do it,” said Pai.
Manpower-intensive physical inspection is also not required to enforce all fire safety regulations, he said. “There are LIDAR-based (Light Detection and Ranging) technologies that can be used to aerially keep a track of setbacks and presence of fire exists. We keep talking about digital technologies. We should adopt them to enforce regulations. Manual inspections are no longer necessary.”