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Our burning cities

Within 18 months of Kamla Mills fire tragedy in Mumbai, another major tragedy in Surat in the neighbouring state of Gujarat has claimed 22 young lives. It doesn’t mean that in between no fire accidents took place. They have been happening with unfailing regularity and innocent lives are being sacrificed for no fault of theirs.

What is even more horrifying is the fact that these accidents are happening when we are aiming to convert existing cities into smart cities and at the same time construct new smart cities to accommodate increasing urban population. Though four years have passed since we announced our ambition to build 100 smart cities but recurring accidents show that ground realities have not changed much.

According to the Fire and Risk Hazard analysis conducted by Risk Management Solutions Inc. (RMSI), which was engaged by the Ministry of Home Affairs a few years ago, there are 2987 fire stations available in the country against the requirement of 8559 fire stations showing 65% deficiency. So fire accidents happen partly because fire safety is not given its due importance in our development plans.

National Building Code of India specifies the demarcation of fire zones, restrictions on construction of buildings in each fire zone, classification of buildings based on occupancy, types of building construction according to fire resistance of the structural and non-structural components and other restrictions and requirements necessary to minimise danger to life from fire, smoke, fumes or panic before the buildings can be evacuated. The Code recognizes that safety of life is more than a matter of means of exits and accordingly deals with various matters which are considered essential to the safety of life. Thus, accidents are occurring not because there are no rules and regulation to prevent them, but they are happening because they are rarely followed. They are mostly followed in letter rather than in spirit.

Apart from stricter enforcement of the rules, the government should also improve its surveillance mechanism to ensure that fire safety measures continue to be there in the buildings even after getting all government approvals. Periodical Fire Safety Audit of the buildings along lines of  structural audits may be thought of to enhance the effectiveness of the fire prevention norms. Another way suggested is the compulsory insurance of the buildings as in such cases insurance agencies would ensure that the buildings adhere to all norms.

The Fire Services have been included as a Municipal function under the XII Schedule of the Constitution of India Article 243 (W). Therefore, it is the primary responsibility of the municipal bodies themselves and the State Governments need to allocate sufficient resources for improving fire safety in the areas of their jurisdiction. At present, there is no Central Scheme under the Ministry of Home Affairs for providing financial assistance to the States for improving fire safety. Under an old Scheme of “Modernization of Fire Services in the country”, Rs. 34 Crore was released to 17 states/UTs during 2014-16 for equipping fire stations with modern equipment. For a country with 1.3 billion population funds allocated are pathetically low and also it shows that fire safety is not at the top of the agenda of the government which has been the case all these years.

Construction activity in the country is on the rise which is natural as we are one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Further, the pace of urbanisation will increase further in the coming years, meaning more constructions in the urban areas. Since space available is limited, emphasis will be given to high-rises and if the fire departments continued to be equipped with antiquated tools and kits, accidents and consequent deaths bound to happen at an accelerated rate. So, the law makers and the enforcement agencies need to adapt themselves to the changing circumstances and ensure that fire departments are adequately equipped with the modern equipment.

At the same time we, the citizens, should also remember that fire safety is not the sole responsibility of government agencies but we too play an important role in avoiding such accidents. Adhering to fire safety norms should not be considered just as a formality to be completed for securing occupation certificate. We should understand that others’ life is as important as ours and their safety is no less important than ours. We should realise that adherence to the rules should be done to prevent accidents and not just to get permissions from local authorities.

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