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?
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.
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.
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?
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.