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Before the next Mumbai nightmare

The municipal corporation must be held to account. Criminal neglect must not be allowed to lead to another Kamala Mills

Written by Kiran Nagarkar | Updated: December 30, 2017 8:18 am
kamala mills fire, mumbai fire, bmc, one above bar, london taxi bar, saki naka, mumbai fires in 2017, indian express The municipal corporation must be held to account. Criminal neglect must not be allowed to lead to another Kamala Mills (Express Photos by Prashant Nadkar and Nirmal Harindan)

As we all know, on the night of December 28, 14 people died as the result of a fire on the sixth floor of a building in Kamala Mills, in a restaurant called One Above. As luck would have it, it was not the fire which destroyed the entire premises and the roof that killed the 14. What did them in was the carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning secondary to smoke inhalation, which suffocated them. Mick Mayers, who spent 30 years working intimately with fire, tells us, “If I were caught in a fire, I would hope the CO got me first. It’s a painless way to die.” What does one say to those victims who died in this man-made, unforgiveable tragedy? “Bless your stars that you died because of CO poisoning and not the fire?”

The 14 people who opted to dine at One Above were, ironically, packed off to meet the One Above who stays, it is rumoured, up in heaven. The question is: Who sent them there? Make no mistake, it was the august body which sits in that Victorian architectural masterpiece next to the Central Railway terminus in South Mumbai. While the President of India, the prime minister and a host of others have sent condolences to the families of the victims, the chief minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, has assured us that he has asked the chief commissioner of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation to carry out an extensive enquiry into the causes of the fire. Let’s grant that this investigation could throw up the nitty-gritty details of the precise circumstances that led to the fire. But isn’t this probe, in many ways, utterly superfluous and merely another method of not acknowledging who is responsible for this mass incineration?

Fire at Kamala Mills Compound in Mumbai: See latest photos

There were at least 11 major fires in Mumbai this year, of which the second-last one on December 25 killed 12 workers in a Gujarati snack or farsan-making shop in Saki Naka. The greater number of these cases occurred in factories or small manufacturing units. Barring exceptions like the fire in Dr Kekoo Kavarana’s home in the middle of the night, the onus of the majority of these fires rests with the owners of the places. But whether the fires took place in residential buildings, work places or restaurants, the main culprit is the Mumbai Municipal Corporation which boasts so often about its monster budget — larger than that of many states within the Indian polity.

Also Read | Midnight she turned 28, celebrated with her family, died an hour later

Let’s start with a random example. Long before the monsoon arrives on the scene, we are told every year that all road repairs have been completed, and stormwater drains are in perfect condition. And yet, without exception, when the monsoon hits the city, the roads are ripped open in no time at all. The same old murderous potholes and gaping cavities are back in place, and lead to ghastly accidents and deaths. The storm drains predictably don’t work. Gutter covers are not in place, and the gutters swallow the denizens of the city. No prizes for guessing who gets the road repairs contracts the next year — the same old companies responsible for the horrendous accidents and deaths the previous year.

One last example of the total disregard by the government for its own diktats. Few megacities in our country are as desperate for water as Mumbai. As a matter of fact, even the richest of the rich have to hire water-carrying lorries to make daily trips to fetch water from dubious sources. About a decade ago, every new building or high-rise was told that it would not be given an occupancy certificate if it did not commission a rainwater harvesting infrastructural scheme from day one. The number of buildings may have gone up exponentially in the last three or four decades, but do a count of the ones with water-harvesting facilities, and you could do so on the fingers of your hand. You could well ask, “Does the government give a damn?” Are you kidding? The legislators and the ministers have water 24X7.

Also Read | Kamala Mills fire: Licence was renewed without spot inspection

What was that you blurted in a whisper just now? “Corruption is endemic at the lowest and highest levels?” Ladies and gentlemen, how could you even suggest such a thing? As Mark Antony said about Cassius and Brutus, these are indeed honourable women and men in our BMC and the government.

But to come back to the horrendous fire hazards in Mumbai. It is mandatory for every single new residential building to have a rigorous fire audit before it gets an occupancy certificate. One cannot stress the need for zero tolerance of any short-coming, flaw or missing element. The same holds for every factory, laboratory, office, school, workshop, library, zoo, museum, research facility, restaurant, dhaba, bhel and roadside tea stall; one, two, three, four and five-star hotel and any other building.

Of what use are these pre-conditions if they are not tested prior to getting the occupancy certificate? Surely, the least we can do now is to go building by building, floor by floor across the length and breadth of Mumbai and its suburbs. Are you really that naïve? Do you believe we have learnt a lesson from this or any other fire?

Who is going to bring back those 12 poor workers who died in their sleep in the farsan shop? Or those 14 people who came to enjoy a meal — some to celebrate a birthday, others who were visiting India from abroad and their aunt was hosting them at One Above?

Also Read | Kamala Mills fire: Pub broke civic rules and got away, suggest records

A recent update said five officers have been taken into custody. Good. But what about their overseers — the municipal councillors we elected and to whom we pay such high salaries, and who are either lax or culpable of sheer neglect and corruption?

Let’s not forget that the deaths at One Above were not accidents. They are, in truth, tantamount to culpable homicides.

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Nagarkar is a well-known writer

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  1. Jayant Borwanker
    Dec 31, 2017 at 11:12 am
    While the accident needs to be condemned and the blame on the muni l corporation is justified for not fool-proofing the licensing system to ensure safety. However, to absolve the restaurant owners of the responsibility of the accident is a cruel injustice by the author. It should be remembered that it is the restaurant owner, who in the first place set out to develop the place into a restaurant. The motive for making a restaurant at a place so congested, inaccessible and risky clearly must not have escaped the mind of a sensible person. The reality is that pure capitalist motives drive such risky ventures who then try to bend the hedge in their favour using the money trap. Corruption thrives because enterprises pay the greedy for their capitalist motives!
    1. Narendra M. Apte
      Dec 30, 2017 at 8:23 pm
      1. Feelings expressed in this article are feelings of many a reader. But truth is that in our country human life has no value. Fire accidents, and deaths due to such fires, though not routine events, are happening with such regularity that one may feel that they are inevitable, which they are not. 2. Our past experience tells that unfortunately we do not take fire accidents seriously. Further, we have this fatalistic mind which says that ‘whatever is going to happen will happen’. Therefore, fire caused mishaps will continue to happen and lives will continue to be lost. Since public memory is proverbially short, I guess I feel that for a few days after such incidents of fire there will be a debate and people will soon forget them and move on. 3. Many think that in our country “chalta hai yar” at ude is so powerful that we often forget to follow basic safety rules and allow others to get away when they too are not observing them.
      1. Parth Garg
        Dec 30, 2017 at 1:52 pm
        Criminal negligence is rampant in every department of the administration since such a position suits the bureaucracy, leaders and the criminals to have a field day. If punishment is to be given, it should be given to the entire system and not the recipient of the bounty alone.
        1. Raman Govindan
          Dec 30, 2017 at 12:12 pm
          we do not focus on any area or any function of muni l corporation. we got to eliminate the most lacuna in them first. let us say that drainage. take it as a task and make it better. take an area and make them more livable! assess and go to another task. that is scientific project management. not confuse and do nothing. 2. Hema Malini was right when she told that high population growth.is responsible for such incidents. with a limited budget, the muni l corporation has to allot more funds for drainage, water supply, school, road etc. for continuously increasing population. the state that export their unemployed to Mumbai, Delhi are equally responsible for the population explosion and the worsening services! continuously monitoring the population growth and arresting is equally important!
          1. Sunil Pankaj
            Dec 30, 2017 at 11:51 am
            Just as there are Chartered Accountants, there should be Chartered Safety Experts’ companies. These companies should have international experts, including some non-Indians.
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