As a student visiting the national capital for the first time in 2015, Karol Bagh seemed like heaven – it’s loaded with budget hotels, has a range of restaurants and is close to Connaught Place in central Delhi.
For a financially-dependent student with shallow pockets, Karol Bagh gave me a feeling of a five-star room in a one-star building. Yet, when I read about the tragic deaths of 17 people due to fire at Arpit Palace Hotel on Tuesday, 12 February, the idea of a safe stay took a hit.
As reports of Arpit Palace having flouted fire safety norms began to emerge, I visited a number of other hotels in the vicinity to see if rules were being followed. I had a checklist of the following safety measures that are mandated by the Delhi Fire Policy Act, 2009:
- Valid fire extinguishers
- Water sprinklers
- Smoke-detection sensors
- Water pipes/fire hose
- Emergency exit/staircase
- Training of staff
No Sprinklers, Emergency Exit
It was noon and staff members at a three-storey hotel in Karol Bagh’s Abdul Aziz Road were busy checking the hotel’s public address system. As ‘Hello check, hello check’ echoed across the lobby, I asked for a single hotel room, but it wasn’t available. I walked out and noticed a pile of fire extinguishers towards the entrance.
Then an attendant, Satyam*, caught up with me and agreed to show a different hotel. I asked him about the noise in the area, he muttered, ‘Checking chal raha hai sab. (Checking of fire equipment is underway at the hotel)’. On enquiring further, Satyam mentioned the fire at Arpit Palace, which I pretended not to know about. I asked him if the hotel he was working at had all the safety gear, but he said he wasn’t sure and asked me not to worry.
Five minutes later, in a three-storey hotel at the mouth of a narrow lane nearby, I was shown a single windowless room. “This could be a smoke chamber,” I told Satyam.
There were no water sprinklers at this hotel either, but it had fire extinguishers that had not reached their refill date yet. As I reached the ground floor, Satyam showed me an electronic box with blinking lights: the smoke detection console.
“Dekhiye sab theek chal raha hai, sab suraksha hai yaha pe (Everything is alright, we have all the safety features here.)” he added. The receptionist joined in to say, “Aap log darenge to kaise chalega (How will it work if customers are afraid)?”
How can this hotel with no sprinklers, a narrow staircase and no fire exit be safe, I wondered. Officials had said that the fire exit at hotel Arpit Palace was not just narrow, but also locked, leaving no space for guests to escape.
Are Hotel Employees Adequately Trained?
Opposite to the hotel that Satyam took me to, I met a security guard named Kanhaiya*. I asked him about safety measures at his hotel and Kanhaiya pointed at fire extinguishers in the lobby.
Every hotel is required to have a fire safety officer and Kanhaiya claimed that he had received the mandatory training. When asked what all he had learnt, he said his job was to look for the nearest source of water if a fire breaks out. “I also know how to operate a fire extinguisher,” he said, explaining how the safety gear is used.
Despite the claim that he was trained, “often, in the event of such emergencies, one always thinks about saving himself,” Kanhaiya added.
Old And Expired Fire Safety Equipment
Across Karol Bagh’s Gaffar market, another lane leads into a maze of hotels. It is filled with hawkers and is narrower than the previous one. Walking through its tiny entrance, I noticed a fire extinguisher that had passed its refill date last year.
I took another narrow stairway to see another windowless room on the first floor of the hotel. Nor was there a fire hose and neither did I see any sign of water sprinklers or smoke detectors.
I walked down in a haste, only to realise how difficult it could be to get out of the building since there was no emergency exit here either. The dangling electric wires outside the hotel were another hazard in the making. How will fire tenders reach the spot if there was a mishap? How will the adjacent buildings save themselves from a blaze?
Are Fire Hoses Connected to Water Sources?
At the third hotel, too, I could not find water sprinklers or smoke detectors, although fire hoses could be seen on every landing. Here, I could see fire extinguishers on all floors, but couldn’t verify if they had crossed their refill date.
While almost every hotel I visited had fire hoses – red pipes that are coiled up at the corner – we could not verify if they were connected to the building’s water supply. The mere presence of water pipes isn’t a safeguard, as Mohit Kumar, Station Officer, Shankar Road Fire Station, pointed out.
According to Kumar, although Arpit Palace Hotel had detection systems, the fire hose wasn’t connected to the water tank. This effectively rendered the hotel’s fire preparedness redundant.
Few Hotels Have Emergency Exits
On either side of Abdul Aziz Road, hotel-owner Manish* said his property meets all fire safety norms, adding that he regularly checks their refill dates. He also said that he had an elaborate fire alarm system linked to smoke detectors installed on all floors.
Manish claimed that there was a fire exit, but didn’t show it to us. Another property managed by Manish in the adjoining lane did not have an emergency exit. The hotel’s manager, Negi*, admitted that fire tenders won’t be able to enter the lane and “one would have to break a room on the ground floor to make way for an emergency exit.”
Negi also lamented that if questions over the safety of people at hotels had been raised earlier, more than 17 people wouldn’t have lost their lives to the fire at Arpit Palace.
Business as Usual
At a lobby of a hotel, I met a cop from the Karol Bagh police station, who claimed that his team conducts yearly security checks at hotels. That includes checking registers, CCTV cameras and the presence of metal detectors.
Owners of other hotels also claimed that they conducted regular fire-safety drills at their properties. One of them, Mr Sharma (he didn’t give his first name) even tested the hotel’s public address system in front of me. But then again, Hotel Arpit had a fire clearance from 2018; it also had police clearance, and an emergency exit.
Sadly, despite being a tinderbox, Karol Bagh remains the only option for many who come to the city for a brief stay. Kapil, a local resident, summed it, “Kuch dino take chalega, uske baad sab wapis normal (These checks will go on for some time, then everything will return to normal).”
* Names have been changed as sources wished to remain anonymous.