Friday’s fire in Surat comes as a rude reminder that the state government has learnt no lessons from the repeated incidents of fire in the past six months at coaching centres in Surat and Ahmedabad. Despite inquiries announced in the past, the government failed to institute measures to prevent coaching centres from being run in unsafe buildings.
Just six months ago, on November 26, a fire at a coaching centre in Vesu area claimed two lives — of seven-year-old Manthan Jadav, who died of asphyxiation and a 42-year-old female teacher who succumbed to injuries a few days later. Gujarat Education Minister Bhupendrasinh Chudasama at the time said his department was working on a policy to mandate that coaching centres obtain requisite permissions before starting operations.
Soon after the Vesu incident, the Surat fire department sealed seven tuition centres over the lack of fire safety measures (see image above). These buildings lacked emergency exits, proper ventilation and fire extinguishers in the classrooms.
At the time, officials of the Surat Municipal Corporation’s fire department carried out a survey of several tuition centres in the city and gave notices to 230 of them for not adhering to safety norms. Two of the classes surveyed were asked to shift to safer places as they were functioning out of basements and had been declared “dangerous”.
In another incident on January 30, a major fire broke out in a building housing Astha coaching institute in Jivraj Park, Ahmedabad. The fire had started at a mattress shop on the ground floor stocked with foam sheets and cotton bales. As many as 27 students trapped on the first floor were rescued, and a dozen firefighters battled for hours to extinguish the blaze.
Yet, the policy framework promised during the Vesu incident was not even initiated. When asked about this on Friday, Minister Chudasama said, “At that time we had conducted an inquiry and taken necessary actions.” Shifting the blame for Friday’s incident, he said, “This comes under the municipal corporation’s purview. The state government had assigned the inquiry to a senior officer and we hope the report will reveal the reasons behind this accident.”
Whereas no preventive measures have been taken, Chief minister Vijay Rupani has directed an inquiry on whether the building possessed mandatory permissions. The functioning of the municipal corporation and the fire brigade as well as the rescue operations carried out also come under the scanner. Principal Secretary of Urban Development Mukesh Puri is to submit a report on the inquiry within three days.
After the November fire, a survey of coaching centres in Ahmedabad and Surat was conducted. The surveys revealed that almost all of them violated fire safety norms, after which it was resolved that the violators would be shut down. However, hardly any action was taken.
There are as many as 750 tuition classes across Ahmedabad district, of which 500 function within city limits. In Ahmedabad, the district education officer conducted a month-long survey of over 500 of them and submitted a report to the Ahmedabad fire department on January 30 this year. As many as 250 tuition centres were found violating fire safety norms.
Asked what action had been taken on the basis of the report, Ahmedabad’s Additional Chief Fire Officer Rajesh Bhatt merely said, “The report is under the purview of MF Dastoor, Chief Fire Officer of Ahmedabad, and he would be able to comment on it.”
Based on the report, Ahmedabad collector Vikrant Pandey had issued notices to the coaching centres stating that they would be allowed to run only if fire safety systems were put in place. At the time, the Collector said a second inspection would be conducted after 15-20 days.
“Notices were issued to nearly 250 of these coaching institutes but we could not take action as these were not registered under the corporation’s shops and establishment act. We had shared the report with the AMC to take further action,” Collector Pandey said.
CM orders fire safety audit of schools, malls, hospitals
Chief Minister Vijay Rupani has ordered a fire safety audit of schools, colleges, coaching centres and shopping malls. He said the audit would find out if educational establishments had proper safety equipment and facilities to deal with fire accidents. The audit would also cover hospitals, malls and other commercial buildings of major cities and towns in the state.
“We have already ordered an inquiry into the incident. To avoid such tragic incidents, I have asked officials to conduct fire safety audit of all schools, colleges, hospitals, malls and other commercial buildings. We will check if they have proper fire fighting equipment,” Rupani told reporters. He added that forensic experts had been brought in to find out the exact cause of the fire.