A little over three hours after the early Friday morning fire at 1Above resto-bar and the adjoining Mojo’s Bistro, Mumbai Municipal Commissioner Ajoy Mehta was at the site, taking stock of the situation. The following afternoon, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis examined the premises and hours later, Mehta ordered the suspension of five civic officials and the transfer of one. The Mumbai Police registered a case of culpable homicide on Friday and has filed four FIRs so far.
Over 10 days earlier, on December 18, a fire no less deadly had swept through Bhanu Farsan Shop, a savouries unit on Saki Naka’s Khairani Road, about 23 km from Kamala Mills. Twelve workers had died in the fire.
Mehta had on the day of the Saki Naka fire directed a Deputy Municipal Commissioner (DMC) to conduct a probe and submit a detailed report within the next 15 days. The probe seeks to establish the cause of the fire; fix responsibility on the allegedly illegal construction of a mezzanine floor/loft; and check whether all requisite licences were issued. The report is expected next week.
Two days after the Saki Naka fire, Mehta had also directed the setting up of a ‘fire safety compliance cell’ in all 34 fire stations of the city to ensure such mishaps are prevented. These cells are meant to regularly coordinate with ward officials on inspections of establishments, both commercial and residential.
In the aftermath of that fire, the dusty by-lanes, workshops and small manufacturing units of Saki Naka witnessed a series of inspections by officials of the departments of fire, public-works, building and construction department, and officials of L-ward (Kurla, Saki Naka, Chandivali), where the shop is located. There have, however, been no suspension of civic officials.
MLA Nazeem Khan and a few local corporators visited the spot on Khairani Road. At Rajawadi Hospital, where the deceased and the injured were rushed, corporator Neil Somaiya met families. MP Kirit Somaiya later tweeted that he had requested the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to conduct a special drive to check for fire compliance in farsan shops. In a tweet, Mumbai Congress chief Sanjay Nirupam questioned why no action was taken against civic officials.
When asked why had been no suspensions after the Saki Naka fire, a senior BMC official from L-ward said, “The scale of violations is different in both (1Above and Bhanu Farsan Shop) fire mishaps. We never received any complaint against Bhanu Farsan. In the Kamala Mills case, there were complaints of irregularities against various establishments, and there has been negligence by a few civic officials.”
In the case of the Kamla Mills fire, the BMC sent out over 50 teams of civic inspectors to demolish ‘illegal’ restaurant extensions in the city and the suburbs – by Saturday evening, 314 demolitions had taken place, with Mehta monitoring the drive on a real-time basis. In Saki Naka, there were no demolitions immediately after the incident.
Ajit Kumar Ambi, assistant commissioner (L-ward), told The Sunday Express that after the Saki Naka fire, 92 gas cylinders were seized from hotels and establishments, 90 inspection report notices filed and a lodging and hookah parlour booked for violation of fire norms. Ambi said their aim was to inspect 60,000 establishments. Shop owner Ramesh Bhanushali was arrested and booked for culpable homicide, among other charges.
While BMC teams have begun cracking down on illegal restaurants and bars in the city a day ahead of New Year’s eve, the eateries at Saki Naka, from which the BMC confiscated cylinders after asking them to obtain the fire department’s no objection certificate (NOC), are now buying new cylinders to keep their businesses afloat.
Praful Kadam, supervisor at Gurukripa Snacks Corner, a restaurant in Saki Naka whose gas cylinder was taken away by BMC two days after the fire mishap, said BMC asked them to get the fire department’s NOC, but “we bought another cylinder few days ago. NOC will take several days”.
“Mumbai is a city of tragedies. People slowly forget such incidents, especially if a poor man dies,” said Afzal Khan, who owns a water purification plant adjacent to Bhanu Farsan, the shop in Saki Naka that caught fire due to a suspected short circuit.
Thursday’s Kamala Mills blaze has forced civic officials in L-ward, like in all 24 wards of Mumbai, to take to the field. On Saturday, officials took action against five hotels in the ward. The upper floors of Peninsula Hotel, Oozo Bar and Diner, and Hotel Choice Lee were sealed. Inflammable material was seized from the hotels and water connection was snapped in Choice Lee hotel.
Meanwhile, the 10 labourers who survived the blaze in Bhanu Farsan struggle to deal with the tragedy – the loss of their loved ones, coupled with the lack of work.
Arjun Gupta’s brother Ram Naresh worked in Bhanu Farsan and died in the blaze. Arjun himself worked in another such farsan unit, but lost his job when the shop shut down following the BMC crackdown. He has been living with his relatives in Bhiwandi until he finds a new job. “We can’t leave the city. Otherwise our pending salaries will never be given. After my brother died in the workshop, we were not even given money to transport his body back home to Uttar Pradesh,” said Arjun.
Shahabuddin Khan, whose nephew Noor Mohammed died in the blaze, said, “These were all poor men and their families have not received any compensation.”