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In Rajkot & Delhi Fires, Abject Regulation and Degraded Governance Are To Blame

The Rajkot and Delhi fire accidents expose the corrupted underbelly of Indian regulatory and enforcement mechanisms.

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The two recent fire tragedies, in Rajkot (27 dead) and Delhi (13 children dead), point out the serious and systemic malaise afflicting our most basic governance structures that have degraded to such an extent now that they cannot be trusted to deliver justice for the common citizenry.

We have also learnt absolutely nothing from the 1995 Dabwali fire tragedy (over 460 dead), the 1997 Uphaar Cinema fire (59 dead), or the numerous other serious fire tragedies that have beset us since.

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Uphaar Case and Morbi Bridge Collapse Taught Us Nothing

The Uphaar Case is emblematic. The cinema's license was suspended for four days in June 1983 due to structural and fire safety deviations, but it obtained a stay order from the Delhi High Court, after which the cinema continued to function on temporary permits of two months each for 14 years (ie, a total of 84 temporary extensions) – till that fateful day 13 June 1997.

Following an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the trial court framed charges in February 2001 against all 16 accused, after being directed by the Delhi High Court in July 2000.

In December 2008, the High Court upheld the trial court's order convicting the Ansal brothers but reduced their sentence from two years to one year.

The Supreme Court, addressing the 2009 petition seeking enhancement of the sentence, reserved its order (April 2013).

In July 2022, the Patiala House court upheld the order of conviction passed by the trial court against the Ansals but reduced the sentence to the period already undergone (eight months and 12 days), saying, "We empathise with you. Many lives were lost, which can never be compensated. But you must understand that penal policy is not about retribution. We have to consider their (Ansals) age. You have suffered, but they have also suffered."

The Morbi bridge tragedy provides another example.

The bridge collapsed four days after opening in October 2022, killing 135 and injuring 56. The Special Investigation Team, appointed by the Gujarat government to probe the collapse, stated that administrative lapses and mismanagement by the company contracted to maintain the bridge were responsible for the incident.

The SIT’s interim report (December 2022) had held the municipality’s chief administrator Sandeepsinh Zala responsible for signing the contract with M/s Oreva (a watch-making company) without the due approval of the civic body’s general body.

How Are Governments Not Aware of Such Violations?

The Rajkot and Delhi fire accidents, even the Pune ‘Porsche” incident and the 2022 Morbi bridge collapse, expose the corrupted underbelly of Indian regulatory and enforcement mechanisms.

The gaming zone-cum-amusement park in Rajkot was housed in temporary structures with tin roofs.

It neither had adequate fire-fighting arrangements nor emergency exits and functioned without a no-objection certificate from the Rajkot Fire Department. It also had large amounts of fuel stored on the premises.

The licence of Delhi’s Baby Care New Born Hospital (12 children dead) had expired on 31 March; it had no fire-fighting arrangements, no emergency exits – yet, it continued to function.

In the case of the Morbi bridge, M/s Oreva had outsourced repair work to a “non-competent agency.” It doesn’t need an Einstein-ian brain to figure out why the municipality’s chief administrator awarded the contract without the due approval of the civic body’s general body.

It is incomprehensible that no governmental official is aware of such violations. In all such tragedies, the media drums up a huge noise; politicians and senior officials visit the site and the victims’ families, shed copious crocodile tears, announce compensations, and then get down to whitewashing the deed, often by subtly “managing” the survivors into a structured compliance in order to absolve many of the blame.

In the Uphaar case, the 28-family ‘Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy’ (AVUT) notwithstanding, it is a single couple, Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, which has been in the lead in the battle for justice for the victims.

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Are We Too Lax About Our Safety?

Past experience tells us that none of those officials who were mandated to oversee such things and enforce the regulations were punished, as “babudom” tends to protect each other – whereas the main culprits in every tragedy are the licensing/regulatory/enforcement departments working in criminal tandem with the owners of such businesses.

Thus, the very first step is – every official who was/is responsible for enforcing the regulations but failed to do so, should, at the very least, be dismissed from service and tried for manslaughter.

It is only then that such officials will stop enriching themselves at the expense of innocent lives and/or stop paying heed to political “suggestions” to look the other way.

The next step is to emphasise fire safety and resilience in hospitals. These contain enough materials (electrical circuitry, medical equipment, oxygen, fuel, etc) to rapidly create an inferno – and most hospital fires have started from electrical short-circuiting.

The 2011 Census outlined that about 69 percent of India’s population was rural, with 31 percent being urban.

But about 80 percent of hospitals and doctors are located in, and cater to, urban areas (as well as medical tourism) – but many urban hospitals are located in residential buildings, which, in turn, are not amenable to fire safety required in hospitals.

There is also greed which leads to the number of beds being increased in the ICU or critical-care wards, which increases the electrical load. Such a trend needs to be reversed through stringent checks.

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Educate, Aware

The last step is educating the masses.

Extensive studies reveal that it takes between two and three minutes for a household fire to reach an inferno, and the average time to escape a house fire after the smoke alarm sounds is about 2.5 minutes. This is where smoke alarms and portable fire-fighting equipment play a critical role.

Thus, there is a need for an intensive campaign to educate the public on fire safety measures. When confronted with a fire:

  • Activate any alarm system and try to notify the fire department.

  • Assist any persons in immediate danger, or those incapable of exiting the area on their own, but without risk to yourself.

  • Attempt to extinguish the fire in the first few minutes only.

  • Exit the area in time as the fire flares.  

A country is as good as the strength of its institutions. Our problem seems that we have too few people with courage of convictions and too many “men/women of straw”.

The former is a nearly extinct species, as the institutions which are supposed to protect officials who refuse to submit to wrong directions seem to have failed – too many pay the price for saying NO.

The “straw” breed is flourishing and remains more than willing to subvert legal processes for the rich and powerful in return for paltry gains.

This degeneration has the potential to eventually encourage those denied justice to take the law into their own hands – a most undesirable trend.

It is therefore up to the proverbial “few good men (and women)”, if any are left, to address these debilitating shortcomings in basic governance!

(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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