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Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Kamala Mills fire: HC committee recommends criminal action against BMC officials, restaurant owners

Kamala Mills fire: In addition, the committee has also recommended a full-fledged departmental inquiry against officers of the state industries and excise departments.

Written by Sailee Dhayalkar | Mumbai | Updated: September 13, 2018 7:39:14 am
Kamal mills fire, kamala mills fire death, Kamala mills fire investigation, BMC officials, pub owners, 1 Above, Mojo’s Bistro, Indian Express news The Kamala Mills compound after the fire. (File Photo)

The committee constituted by the Bombay High Court to investigate the Kamala Mills fire has recommended that criminal proceedings be initiated against officers of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), Kamala Mills owner Ramesh Gowani and the six owners of the two restaurants, 1 Above and Mojo’s Bistro, that went up in flames on December 29, 2017, killing 14.

In addition, the committee has also recommended a full-fledged departmental inquiry against officers of the state industries and excise departments. The report also pulled up the architect, interior designers and contractors, hookah service providers of the two restaurants and recommended criminal proceedings against each.

The committee slammed officers of the BMC and the state government for granting hasty permissions under the guise of Ease of Doing Business (EODB). “…Most of the NOCs, licences, approvals, permissions etc have been hurriedly granted for reasons best known to the officers concerned, who are now taking shelter behind EODB. We strongly condemn such illegalities and recommend that proper checks and balances must be provided and strictly implemented,” the committee said. “Certainly in our view EODB cannot be at the cost of frequent loss of innocent lives. Hence, it is not possible for us to condone the lapses on part of officers of the BMC or of the state government on the assumption that they were promoting EODB.”

The report says, “There was no provision for fire safety measures on the terrace of the building where the two restaurants were operating in full swing with service of hookah and fire games being played. We recommend that this needs to be inquired into and necessary action may be initiated by the municipal commissioner at the earliest.” The committee has recommended initiation of appropriate action by the Council of Architects, Delhi, and independent criminal proceedings against the architect, B R Gandhi.

The committee also recommended that criminal proceedings be initiated against interior designers Sumesh Menon (1Above) and Conrad Gonsalves (Mojo’s Bistro). The committee said, “…we think it is absolutely essential to have some statutory regulatory body for the interior designers and contractors as well. There should be written contracts defining the role of each one of them in clear terms,” the committee recommended.

The three-member committee noted that Menon had told the committee that he was a “foreign-qualified interior designer”. However, the committee wrote in its report, “When we questioned him, he frankly stated that he was in New York, USA, for training for two weeks, out of which there were four holidays viz. two weekends. Thus, admitted his foreign training lasted for only 10 days.” The committee also recommended putting in place an “effective statutory regime for electricians as well”.

The report also said that the committee finds no fault with the officers of the Police Department in the tragedy. Industries Department and Excise Department were clearly negligent in the discharge of their duties, the report said.

In a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by former Mumbai Police Commissioner Julio Ribeiro, represented by lawyers Sujay Kantawala and Ashish Mehta, seeking a judicial inquiry into the incident, the High Court in April had constituted a three-member committee headed by former Chief Justice of Kerala High Court and former Judge of Bombay High Court Justice A V Savant, to probe on the terms of reference submitted by the state, which says to inquire into the culpability of the owners of restaurant and if there was any dereliction of duty by the municipal corporation as well as state government in relation to the approvals and sanctions granted to the restaurant owners.

The report says that for the restaurant 1 Above, Kamala Mills owners Ramesh Gowani, having 95 percent share and Ravi Bhandari having 5 percent share in Kamala Mills, were charging Rs 16,64,456 as licence fee per month. Out of this, Rs 5,62,250 was the licence fee for the covered area of 1,730 sq.ft., whereas the remaining amount of Rs 11,02,206 was the licence fee for the uncovered area open terrace of 6762 sq.ft. Similarly, for Mojo’s Bistro which is 3,300 sq.ft. Gowani and Bhandari charged Rs 10,72,500 per month as the licence fee. The uncovered area — open terrace — measuring 441O.43 sq.ft., for which the monthly licence fee was Rs 7,05,668; total Rs 21,78,168 per month.

“Thus, from the two licensees who were conducting the two restaurants, the licensor (Gowani and Bhandari were recovering Rs. 38,42,624 as licence fees per month,” the report said.

The committee said, “…we have no hesitation in coming to the conclusion that Ramesh Gowani committed serious deviations/ violations of the two No Objection Certificates ((NOCs) granted on February 10, 2017 and September 26, 2017 by the Fire Officer for change of activity from the existing “office” to “restaurant”. The report says that there are a large number of conditions stipulated in the said NOCs, which have been blatantly violated by Gowani.

Gowani and Bhandari were both arrested in connection with the massive fire that broke out in the two restaurants ahead of New Year’s eve last year and claimed 14 lives. They were later released on bail by the Bombay High Court in May.

The 206-page report mentions that specified width was not maintained at the entrance of the two restaurants, there were obstructions on the way to the staircase to go down, the partition illegally put up on the terrace dividing the areas of the two restaurants was not fireproof, the escape routes / exits in case of fire, were not highlighted, smoking and service of hookah was being permitted on the terrace, the staff was not at all trained for dealing with any emergency or fire rescue operations; and there were no fire extinguishers, sand buckets, smoke detectors, hooters, sirens provided anywhere on the terrace.

The report says, “…it is clear that Ramesh Gowani was getting substantial income by way of license fees from the two restaurants, but had taken no care whatsoever to ensure that the conditions of the NOCs dated 10th February 2017 and 26th September 2017 were complied with.”

The report says that the toilet block had only one entrance but neither an exit nor any ventilation. The committee said when a committee member visited the spot, “To our shock and dismay, when we visited the site on 12th May 2018 around 11.30 am, it was found that the entire toilet block was completely demolished… we had requested the municipal commissioner to inquire as to how the toilet block was demolished and by whom, between llth May and 12th May 2018. He has informed us that no permission was sought, nor was any permission granted for the demolition thereof and no employee/ officer of the MCGM was involved in the removal of the toilet block as above.”

The report said, “…we have no doubt that Ramesh Gowani had full control over and access to the entire terrace and he removed the toilet block with the intention that the members of the committee should not be able to see the condition of the toilet block and, in particular, the absence of any route, signage or even ventilation; apart from fact that the whole toilet block was entirely unauthorized and illegal.”

“Ramesh Gowani is also guilty of several breaches by way of use of excessive Floor Space Index (FSI) under the guise of the premises being used for Information Technology,” the report says. It adds, “…we have no hesitation in concluding that Gowani has committed serious deviations / violations of the two NOCs granted bv the fire officer. In fact. it is clear that the conditions of the 2 NOCs were honoured by him more in breach than in observance. Hence, necessary action needs to be initiated against him for the said breaches.”

On the culpability of the owners of the two restaurants, the report says, “In our view, they are also guilty of several breaches and deviations of the two NOCs granted to them by the fire officer…in case of l Above, the restaurant owners are guilty of the following deviations / violations in respect of the NOC dated 26tn November 2016: the rear side staircase for escape from the terrace was completely blocked by stacking inflammable material such as kerosene, coal and liquor; (ii) the entire terrace was used for smoking and serving Hookah in violations…”

The report said, “Having considered the entire material on record in the light of the above provisions and after hearing the concerned parties, it is crystal clear that the fire originated in the southern corner of the terrace occupied by Mojo’s Bistro, where a pedestal fan was kept to ensure that the coal segree kept the charcoal burning.”

The report said, “…there was no trained staff or security personnel to guide them in case of an emergency. What happened was extremely shocking, in as much as, one of the waiters of 1 Above, Sarbjeet Samarendra Pareda, directed the 13 unfortunate patrons to the illegally constructed toilet block which had only one narrow entrance, with neither any exit nor any ventilation. The result was that all the 13 persons, as also Pareda who took them inside the toilet for safety, died due to asphyxia. Obviously, he also did not know where the emergency exits were, since all the exits were blocked.”

The report says that there was negligence by the officials from the BMC’s building proposal department, fire, heath departments for granting NOCs without checking compliance. “…actions taken by the officers of the MCGM were not enough, in as much as, no action was taken for cancellation of the NOCs, licenses issued to the two restaurants and demolition of the restaurants,” the report said.

The report says, “It seems that the fire department has granted five NOC’s for the premises within a span of 13 months and has not taken effective steps…it cannot expect fire safety to be monitored by the heath department, which has no expertise in fire prevent and has imposed inconsistent conditions.”

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