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Repeat tragedies, lessons never learned: Delhi hospital and Rajkot gaming zone fires are new examples of India’s persistent lapses in fire safety compliance

On the day on which the fire broke down, a large number of children were present as the gaming zone owners had dropped the ticket prices for the day. The weekend, dropped ticket prices and the charm of the gaming zone attracted hundreds of children into the well of death.

The recent fire incidents in Delhi and Rajkot claimed 34 lives including newborns and young children within a day. The tragedies have highlighted persistent lapses in the implementation of fire safety measures across India. Negligence and inadequate enforcement of safety regulations have prompted an examination of the underlying causes and pushed for the urgent need for systematic reforms from top to bottom. But before we talk about the norms, and reasons for lapses and discuss old cases that claimed hundreds of lives, it is essential to understand what happened in Delhi and Rajkot.

Delhi hospital fire: A deadly lapse in safety

A fire broke out on 26th May in East Delhi at a children’s hospital. Seven newborns were killed in the fire and several others were injured. Though the cause of the fire remained unconfirmed, it is believed that several factors added to the fire becoming uncontrollable. It might have started due to a short circuit but the illegal refilling of oxygen cylinders in the basement of the hospital added fuel to the fire.

Furthermore, there were no fire safety norms in place, no fire exit points and other lapses. Notably, the doctors at the hospital were not qualified to take care of the newborns. All of them were BAMS doctors. Also, the staff was seen running away from the scene when the fire broke out instead of saving the children. Reportedly, the hospital had only space for five admissions but there were a dozen babies admitted at the time of the incident.

Rajkot gaming zone fire: A preventable disaster

On the other hand, sparks from the welder’s machine resulted in the tragic incident at the indoor gaming facility. 27 lives including those of children were lost in the deadly fire. The structure was made of tin and wood. There were no necessary fire safety measures in place. The gaming zone was equipped with highly flammable material including fuel, rubber types, plastic, Styrofoam cubes and more. Shockingly, a no-objection certificate from the local fire department was not taken by the gaming zone owners.

On the day on which the fire broke down, a large number of children were present as the gaming zone owners had dropped the ticket prices for the day. The weekend, dropped ticket prices and the charm of the gaming zone attracted hundreds of children into the well of death.

Fire safety norms and compliance challenges in India

The National Building Code has Fire Safety Regulations in place. There are several state-specific legislations as well that provide comprehensive guidelines for construction, maintenance, and fire safety protocols in buildings. However, the implementation of these regulations is, to say the least, a sad state of affairs. NBC was last updated in 2016. It included strict measures for fire prevention and mitigation. It was made essential to use non-combustible materials, proper earthing of metallic elements, and fire-resistant electrical installations. However, if the authorities check the buildings made after 2016, only a handful would be complying with the regulations.

According to a 2020 study by the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM), there is a lack of planning and poor implementation of norms in urban areas. Such drawbacks are major contributors to fire risks. There are several informal settlements or illegal constructions across the country. Over populated localities with hundreds of businesses cramped in a small area often escapes regulatory scrutiny. It is only after a major fire incident that the administration wakes up about building safety and compliance with the norms.

National Building Code (NBC) and Its Provisions

According to NBC, it is mandatory to use non-combustible materials for building construction. The internal walls of staircases must be made of brickwork, reinforced concrete, or materials with a minimum fire resistance rating of 120 minutes.

Furthermore, NBC advocates for the usage of fire-resistant electrical installations. Flame-retardant wiring and metal conduits for medium- and low-voltage wiring have been suggested in the documentation. Furthermore, NBC advocates for sealing separate shafts for electric distribution cables and wiring with fire-stop materials which would compartmentalise fire hazards.

According to NBC, the areas have been classified into different fire zones to prevent the juxtaposition of hazardous structures with residential and commercial buildings. For example, residential areas and educational institutes fall under Fire Zone 1. They should not be near industrial or hazardous buildings.

Additionally, NBC put in place specific norms for high-rise buildings and structures with large floor areas or multiple basements and they are required to have robust fire safety measures, including fire exits, dedicated staircases for evacuation, and regular fire drills.

Model Building Bye-Laws 2016

In 2016, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs issued the ‘Model Building Bye-Laws 2016‘ that guided states and UTs so that they can formulate their building bye-laws. These were designed to address fire protection and safety requirements including open safety spaces, evacuation procedures and firefighting equipment.

National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) Guidelines

Apart from the above, the NDMA also has a set of specific fire safety regulations for public structures. The guidelines are focused on regular inspections, training and awareness, licensing and permits and more.

Recurring tragedies: Lessons never learned

The tragic fire incidents of Delhi and Rajkot are not isolated ones. If we look at the data provided by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), in the past two years, there have been 3,375 fire incidents. Electric short circuit was the major cause of fire incidents. In the past, incidents like the Uphaar Cinema fire of 1997, the Dabwali school fire incident of 1995, the Kumbakonam school fire of 2004 and many others have highlighted that there is a systematic failure in the country and the lessons that should have been learned from these incidents remain largely unheeded.

Challenges in compliance

Despite the robust framework in place, there are several challenges that hinder effective compliance. There is a lack of standardisation of norms in the country. The regulations differ at state level. Local adaptation of the NBC often lead to inconsistencies making it difficult to enforce norms at all places. Furthermore, the authorities often neglect to conduct routine fire safety audits.

The reasons include staff shortage, lack of resources and corruption. Apart from these reasons, weak enforcement of norms can be seen almost everywhere. NBC is considered a recommendation document rather than a mandatory one. Authorities at local level often ignore inadequate compliance for the reasons best known to them.

Urban planning in India has seen a lot of loopholes due to corruption and habit of not following the rules. Informal settlements, encroachments without proper planning and lazy attitude of the authorities lead to high vulnerability of the masses. Furthermore, many buildings in India are old and they do not comply with modern safety standards. Sadly, any attempt to demolish such structure face stay orders from courts and long legal battles owing to local politics.

Historical fire incidents in India resulting from neglect

India has witnessed many devastating fire incidents over the years where neglect and non-compliance with safety regulations resulted in deaths of tens of hundreds of innocent people.

The Dabwali school fire tragedy (Haryana) of 23rd December 1995 resulted in 442 deaths. 150 suffered non-fatal injuries. On the fateful day, a fire broke out in a makeshift tent during an annual prize distribution function of DAV School Dabwali. Around 1,500 people were present, mostly children and their parents. The tent was made of highly flammable synthetic material. A short circuit resulted in fire and the tent quickly turned into a fireball. The exit routes were either blocked or insufficient to handle large crowds.

Uphaar cinema fire (Delhi) on 13th June 1997 claimed 59 lives. Over 100 people were injured in the incident. The fire started in a transformer room. It spread due to a lack of proper fire exits and overcrowding. There were no fire safety regulations in place. Exits were blocked trapping many people inside.

The Kumbakonam school fire (Tamil Nadu) incident of 16th July 2004 claimed 94 lives and several others were injured. A midday meal kitchen caught fire and spread to the roof of the school building. There were no fire safety measures in place and exit routes were inadequate.

AMRI Hospital fire incident (Kolkata, West Bengal) of 9th December 2011 claimed 90+ lives. The fire originated in the basement which had highly flammable materials. The hospital lacked fire safety measures. Emergency exits were locked which prevented patients from escaping.

Puttingal Temple fire (Kollam, Kerala) on 10th April 2016 claimed 111 lives. Over 350 were reported injured. Unauthorised fireworks display triggered the fire. There was no safety equipment in place. Proper clearances were not taken by the temple authorities.

Surat Coaching Centre fire (Surat, Gujarat) of 24th May 2019 claimed 22 lives. The fire broke due to a short circuit in the air conditioning system. The building did not have a fire safety certificate. Escape routes were blocked trapping the students.

To address the challenges and avoid such incidents in the future, the governments at the central and state levels have to strengthen enforcement. Public awareness and training should be incorporated into the education system as well as in day-to-day life. Technical integration and adoption of modern technology to control fire incidents must be incorporated into norms with immediate effect. Furthermore, the governments as well as the private sector have to invest in infrastructure upgradation. A centralised database to monitor compliance with fire safety norms across the country can help in identifying and addressing gaps in enforcement.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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B.Sc. Multimedia, a journalist by profession.

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