The lessons we can learn from the latest fire accident in Mumbai

By Johann Ratnaiya

On Wednesday morning, passers-by in Mumbai’s Goregaon area noticed a cloth mill go up in flames. A fire had broken out on the ground floor of the three-storeyed building. The fire brigade control room received a call at 7:15 AM and firefighters reached the flaming edifice 15 minutes later, according to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s disaster management cell. Eight fire engines, seven water tankers and three ambulances were rushed to the site. It was declared a level 3 fire incident at 7:52 AM. Firefighters were only able to successfully douse the flames by 12:45 PM. So far, no harm or loss of life has been reported in this latest incident. The cause of the fire remains to be established but it comes after as the latest in a string of similar incidents in the city.

Similar past occurrences

Mumbai’s fire safety has been a cause for concern over the past few years. Several incidents similar to the one in Goregaon have been reported in the month of January alone. On January 19, a major fire broke out at the Navrang studio in the Todi Mills Compound in south Mumbai. The studio—which is located on the fourth floor of a dilapidated building—succumbed to the flames.

Although there were no casualties in that fire, a fire accident at Cinevista Studio in east central Mumbai claimed the life of an audio assistant. This January 6 incident was preceded by another fatal gut-wrenching fire in suburban Marol. On January 4, four persons including two children were killed and five others seriously injured after the flats they were occupying caught fire. Amongst the tragedies that ravaged Mumbai in 2017, fires topped the list.

Non-compliance and laxity

Fire tragedies are the natural consequence of a withering metropolis where people frown upon official advice and ignore the safety manual, says Pankaj Joshi, Executive Director of the Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI).  Specifically addressing the state of affairs in Lower Parel following the tragedy at Kamala Hills, Joshi elaborated on his concerns. “Lower Parel has seen immense development in recent years. Historically, mills were built close to water bodies, which helped in case of fires; but today, we have built over water bodies.” The problem is with commercial structures and residential premises occupying the same space. “The different types of users in a small pocket pose a challenge to fire safety.”

The National Building Code (NBC) 2016 details the regulations that pertain to fire safety: The number of exits, placement of extinguishers, requirements for a dedicated water-supply, fire-retardant materials and so on. However, implementation of the regulations has been subpar, to say the least. When a multi-purpose building has occupants residing inside, a more stringent safety code must be followed. “If there is a commercial kitchen on one floor, the commercial kitchen safety code must be applied across the structure,” adds Mr. Joshi.

These guidelines can prevent other awful tragedies from happening only if they are rigorously applied. Laxity on the part of the occupants of these structures must no longer be tolerable. A heightened sense of urgency about the potential of fires can help atone for slipups in the past. Citizens must be willing to take the necessary steps in ensuring that their buildings are fireproof.

Involuntary causal agents

A metropolitan city is always looking to expand its economic frontiers. However, all the financial success that has come with this development in India’s financial capital has come with its own baggage. Overpopulation, wealth inequality and other pressing concerns have been thrown by the wayside. The city’s resulting demographics is quite peculiar. Despite being the most populated city in India, many homes in Mumbai continue to be vacant because of their unaffordability. Poorer city resident are being forced to cram into tight spaces in makeshift homes or to build cheap real estate with common walls. These areas are now the only ones with reasonable prices on the real estate market.

All of this increases the probability of fires breaking out. The buildings in these areas are inadequately inspected for material integrity, proper wiring etc. Over time, the circuitry in such building gives way and is likely to cause a fire. Short circuiting has caused 80% of Mumbai’s fires over the past three years. In looking for solutions the government must not overlook prevailing systemic flaws that are preventing people from escaping this vicious cycle. The discussion about the fire-related disasters plaguing Mumbai must give attention to these other social causes.

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