“Illegal construction, multiple violations and serious dereliction of duty and unlawful conduct by Government officials”With that, a three-member independent probe committee formed by the Bombay High Court recommended criminal proceedings be initiated against Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) officials, the owner of Kamala Mills and the owners of the two restaurants that caught fire in Kamala Mills in December 2017.Eight months after a massive blaze claimed 14 lives in the area, the three-member team comprising Justice (Retired) Arvind V Savant, architect Vasant Thakur and former municipal commissioner K Nalinakshan submitted a detailed report into the cause of the fire and those responsible for it.‘Authorities Guilty of Dereliction of Duty’Highlighting the lack of coordination between the fire department, health department and building proposals department, the probe committee found inconsistencies in the NOCs granted by the three departments. Pointing out that despite blatant violations, all the three bodies issued licences.“…on 23rd December 2017, NOC was granted to 1Above by the Fire Dept. for the use of ‘Open to Air’ entire terrace and for provision for fire safety measures in respect thereof, without considering the blatant violations of the building permissions and NOCs granted earlier,” said the report.The report states clearly that the manner in which different officers of the three departments granted the NOCs, permissions, licences and approvals, “shows that they were grossly negligent and/or were guilty of dereliction of duty and/or of unlawful conduct in the discharge of their duties.”The panel hit out at the state government and BMC officers for granting permissions hastily under the guise of Ease of Doing Business (EODB).“…Most of the NOCs, licences, approvals, permissions etc have been hurriedly granted for reasons best known to the officers concerned, who are now taking shelter behind EODB. We strongly condemn such illegalities and recommend that proper checks and balances must be provided and strictly implemented.” “Certainly in our view EODB cannot be at the cost of frequent loss of innocent lives. Hence, it is not possible for us to condone the lapses on part of officers of the BMC or of the state government on the assumption that they were promoting EODB,” said the report.The report did not find fault with police officials, but said that architect BR Gandhi did not act responsibly in the discharge of his duties.‘Serious NOC Violations by Kamala Mills Owner’Citing the violations carried out by the owner of Kamala Mills Ltd, Ramesh Gowani, the report stated that Gowani had not maintained the specified width at the entrance of the two restaurants – 1Above and Mojo’s Bistro. There were not just obstructions on the staircase but even the escape routes and fire exits were not highlighted. While use of hookah was being permitted on the terrace, there were no fire extinguishers, smoke detectors or alarms at the location.Apart from this, the owner of Kamala Mills has been held guilty of several breeches in Floor Space Index (FSI). Gowani allegedly used excessive FSI under the guise of using the Kamala Mills premises for IT offices. But the most damning allegation against Gowani is for tampering evidence. When an executive engineer of the MCGM visited the site on 11 May 2018, he stated in a report that the an illegally constructed toilet block had only one entrance but neither any exit nor any ventilation.“To our shock and dismay, when we visited the site on 12th May 2018 around 11.30 a.m., it was found that the entire toilet block was completely demolished… we had requested the Municipal Commissioner to inquire as to how the toilet block was demolished and by whom.”Excerpt from the reportThe Municipal commissioner informed the panel that no permission was sought or granted for demolition. Neither any employee or officer of the MCG, was involved in the act.The report then said, “…we have no doubt that Ramesh Gowani had full control over and access to the entire terrace and he removed the toilet block with the intention that the members of the committee should not be able to see the condition of the toilet block and, in particular, the absence of any route, signage or even ventilation; apart from fact that the whole toilet block was entirely unauthorized and illegal.”Violations by 1Above and Mojo’s BistroMaking it clear that on the night of 29 December 2017, the fire originated in the southern corner of the terrace occupied by Mojo’s Bistro, the report highlights a series of violations by the two restaurants – 1Above and Mojo’s Bistro – that led to 14 deaths.The report said, “…there was no trained staff or security personnel to guide them in case of an emergency. What happened was extremely shocking, in as much as, one of the waiters of 1 Above, Sarbjeet Samarendra Pareda, directed the 13 unfortunate patrons to the illegally constructed toilet block which had only one narrow entrance, with neither any exit nor any ventilation. The result was that all the 13 persons, as also Pareda who took them inside the toilet for safety, died due to asphyxia. Obviously, he also did not know where the emergency exits were, since all the exits were blocked.”All the six owners of the two restaurants are still in police custody. Implicating them for the many violations, the report recommended action be taken against them. We'll get through this! Meanwhile, here's all you need to know about the Coronavirus outbreak to keep yourself safe, informed, and updated. The Quint is now available on Telegram & WhatsApp too, Click here to join.