FOR THE FIRST column of January, one should begin with best wishes for a happy new year. Unfortunately, 2018 has started on a sombre note. Just as 2017 was about to end, a fire broke out in a terrace restaurant in Kamala Mills Compound, and 14 party-goers, most of them young women gathered to celebrate the birthday of a friend, suffocated to death (the hostess’ birthday turned out to be her last). Just ten days earlier, a fire had broken out in a farsan (Gujarati snacks) shop in the middle of the night and the 12 workers sleeping in the premises, didn’t make it either.
A small aside here: although the number of fatalities in these two fires was almost the same, the earlier fire was barely reported while the fire in the restaurant 1 Above is still being written about, with newspapers carrying photographs and short notes of all 14. In the meanwhile, the workers who died remain, as always, faceless, further proof (if it ever was needed) that we are only interested in what happens to People Like Us. While this, to some extent, is understandable, what isn’t is that the Bombay Municipal Corporation sprung into action only after the second fire, in its usual knee-jerk reaction demolishing 355 ‘unauthorised’ extensions to restaurants and pubs. The sad lesson: not only are our poor invisible; their deaths are small footnotes even to the authorities.
However, what both fires taken together show is how unprepared India’s financial capital is to deal with conflagrations of any kind. Mumbai’s eveninger Mid-Day unearthed a 2011 report commissioned by the BMC from a Philippines-based agency to conduct a risk-assessment survey of the city. That report, presented by the municipal corporation to the government, has met the fate of all reports commissioned by/ for our governments: they, to use the media’s favourite phrase, ‘gather dust’ on bureaucrats’ shelves. Silly us: we should by now know that the very fact of commissioning a report, and getting it in hand, is the sum total of action ever taken by any government. There’s a word called ‘implementation’ which you and I know. But in the government’s vocabulary, that word—ah, lovely phrase—gathers dust too.
Apparently, the Fire Brigade wanted Rs 11 crore for an immediate upgrade of its services. The country’s richest corporation couldn’t find this amount, so where was the question of a real upgrade? Mumbai has 34 fire stations; a 2013 assessment said 25 more were immediately needed. But where is the money? It’s needed for more essential things like building a Shivaji statue and the Bullet Train to Ahmedabad.
Fact of life: fires will happen. The first step is to minimise their occurrence. Very often they are caused by faulty electrical installations, or by hazardous chemicals or materials stored in crowded places. The second step is to ensure the fire doesn’t spread quickly: you achieve that by using fire-retardant material and quick-use extinguishers. The third step is to get people out of the danger zone. For that, there should always be at least two escape routes, clearly marked. In the farsan fire, the workers were probably locked inside and couldn’t get out; in 1 Above, there was only one narrow exit route (another one was completely blocked). To add to this general negligence, there’s our own indifference. Do you, for example, visually check emergency exits in cinema halls, restaurants and the like? Ninety-nine per cent of us don’t. And do you know what to do in case you are caught in a fire? In 1 Above, 12 women thought they would be safe in a toilet. Only one survived, and tha’s because she ran out braving the flames—it’s smoke that killed the ones seeking safe refuge.
The last step is obviously fire-fighting. Mumbai’s defunct mill lands have been re-developed rapidly with the building of offices, TV studios, furniture shops, restaurants and pubs, with no attention to safety. You don’t need to be a foreign expert agency to notice the hazards: common sense will tell you so many establishments have sprung up in narrow lanes where no fire-engine will be able to enter. How was permission given to them to first construct and then begin operations? Money, my dear, makes the world go round. The people who work in the fire brigade and the municipal corporation are experts at this trick: they can simultaneously turn a blind eye while opening their desk drawer.
What else does the BMC’s frantic demolition of 355 illegal constructions, alternations and additions in the mill lands show? Given this connivance of authorities, builders and developers, there are very many more disasters waiting to happen. A cartoon doing the rounds shows a couple in a restaurant telling the waiter, ‘Menu please. And your Fire Compliance Certificate.’ Short of that, in this new year, make a resolution that wherever you go, be sure of the emergency exit route. And remember if caught in a fire to wrap a wet cloth around your face, and run out to a wonderful and safe 2018.