Towering inferno: Fire risk advisory - too little, too late

Subhasish Mitra (Wide Angle)

The Union health ministry and National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) issued a joint advisory to states and UTs, directing that all accredited hospitals conduct thorough inspections of their electrical load capacity and address discrepancies, and obtain valid fire no-objection certificates (NOCs) from their respective fire departments.


The advisory comes in the wake of fire outbreaks in Delhi and Rajkot which point to gross neglect of rules and criminal failures.


Two devastating fire incidents within a span of less than 12 hours, which have snuffed out lives, many of them children, including, most heartbreakingly, newborns at a paediatric hospital in Delhi, are reminders of the shockingly low priority accorded to basic safety measures in Indian cities.


The emerging details of the fire at a Rajkot indoor gaming centre evoke a terrible feeling of anger and grief. The gaming centre did not have an NoC from fire safety authorities, it had only one route for entry and exit and welding work was underway during business hours. While the Gujarat High Court has taken suo motu cognisance of the tragedy and asked the state government as well as the municipalities to submit a report on the functioning of gaming centres in these cities, a Delhi government investigation into the cause of the fire at a child care hospital is underway.


Fire preparedness is a well-developed discipline in most parts of the world. Yet outbreak after outbreak in the last three decades has highlighted the failure to learn from it and bring it into the design of public spaces, housing apartments, hospitals, commercial and office complexes.


Buildings in the country continue to be tinder boxes despite the all too similar conclusions of past investigations — be it the Uphaar Cinema tragedy in Delhi in 1997 or the Bengaluru residential complex blaze of 2010, the Kamala Mills inferno of 2017, Kolkata’s AMRI hospital fire in 2011 or outbreaks in hospitals during the Covid pandemic.


Against this backdrop, the NDMA held a review meeting on May 22 and directed the Delhi government to carry out an audit of all hospitals and coaching centres in the city, and share a report within a month’s time. “This needs to be done to ensure that in case of a short circuit, what preparations are in place. Also, how will people be evacuated,” said a senior official. Separately, the Delhi heat action plan, which according to the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) was implemented in April, recommends replacing and upgrading all damaged transformers and loose wires, with special care for power supply in hospitals, dispensaries and clinics.


Similar advisory to carry out fire-risk audits went out to states and UTs as well. The NDMA advisory states that a detailed set of instructions, outlining the steps and measures to be undertaken by hospitals to ensure fire safety compliance should be disseminated to all accredited hospitals. Some steps in the advisory include conducting a comprehensive fire safety audit, ensuring that fire-fighting systems are present and fully functional, and directing hospitals to address insufficient electrical load capacity.


Any shortcoming must be promptly rectified and that hospitals must strictly adhere to regulatory requirements and obtain valid fire NOCs from their respective state fire departments. The man-made disaster in Rajkot claimed more than 30 lives, while the inferno in the Delhi neo-natal hospital snuffed out the lives of at least seven babies, the youngest being just a day old. In the national capital as many as 66 cases of fire have been reported in the last two years.


In most cases the culpability in the tragedy is established and the guilty punished, but fire safety norms are ignored till another blaze hogs the headlines. The onus is definitely on the administration to ensure that safety measures at entertainment centres and health facilities are strictly followed. Lack of compliance should be acted upon and public officials should be held answerable for any negligence – not just after a disaster strikes. If safety rules are adhered to, many of such tragedies can be avoided and casualties minimised.


Post-tragedy, the authorities are all too efficient at making arrests, filing FIRs, hand wringing, chest-beating and announcing compensation – while courts play their part. Fatal accidents occur when authorities turn away from brazen flouting of norms. Experts have long cautioned against this pan-India disregard for safety regulations.


In fire after fire or bridge collapses – Morbi (135 deaths), Kollam temple fire (109 deaths, 2016), Varanasi flyover collapse (at least 18 deaths, 2018), or Delhi’s Mundka fire (27 deaths, 2022) – at fault is official oversight, lax enforcement of safety norms and audits, and lack of accountability for low-quality construction and maintenance across India.



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