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How ministers made the Mantralaya fire worse

Here is the irony of Thursday's fire which ravaged Mantralaya, the Mumbai headquarters of the Maharashtra Government: the disaster management control room was a victim, rendered entirely useless. When a disaster occurs, that control room is supposed to spring into action, providing guidance, and coordinating rescue and relief.

The other irony is that, while fires do occur at the most unlikeliest of places, in this case the VIPs who occupy the building helped stoke it by their past actions. They did just anything with the building; breaking down walls, and adding combustible furniture and décor.

They like their offices plush and also large. They break down walls; add wooden partitions, so that they are in keeping with their status, a design that is not compatible with a building built in the late 1950s. In all the alterations, never once have the users – that is the powerful and the mighty – have thought of those who are visitors.

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The building has no fire escapes, no boards displaying the route when a fire begins to eat into its innards. More people visit the premises every day than perhaps the number of employees working in it. Being strangers to the pathways inside, they can be – and as was seen yesterday – the most susceptible to injury and loss of life. Some corridors, especially the top floors, are veritable tunnels lined with plywood. Imagine a person running through that.

The third is, the VIPs ran for their lives or were escorted out, which one cannot deny them. The security personnel coped with their bosses, not the visiting people who had been trapped in the VIP’s offices. Try reconciling the media reports and visuals of ministers, in this case, Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar ‘guiding operations’ and tens of people who had come to meet him being trapped in his office. They make distressing reading.

In the absence of any regular drill, none of the fire extinguishers were used. No alarm was sounded. Each had to fend for himself any which way. In that sense, it is a fire trap sustained by the belief that “it can’t happen here”. But when it did, the entire government, including its disaster management control room, was caught with its pants down. Imagine a monsoon-related havoc now and the state would be at sea.

Even the rudimentary stuff which can make the place disabled-friendly is missing. Only nominal concession to them is a ramp on one side of the building set up when Jayant Patil, a finance minister, had fractured both his legs in a car accident so he could access the lifts. Thereafter, nothing; it was a self-centredness of a VIP; visitors be damned.

Conceding that in India things have to work for VIPs, the layout is not conducive for fire tenders to move around the campus. They cannot move from the front to the rear nor the other way round. They have to be approached from three different sides, the fourth being blocked by a row of buildings on HT Parekh Road.

Being ministers and officials in all-important seats, they do get away with any and all violations of building codes and each year, with the additions and changes, they make the place increasingly vulnerable. Everyone else is a minion. Those who could have exerted their influence to make their own work place safer just went with the flow; they are now content pointing out the flaws to the media. Their conscience is now clear.

Since 1987, I have been a regular visitor, almost on four-times-a-week basis to this building, and never have I known of even a fire drill. But fortunately, I have not had the misfortune to see a fire there. Elders who have been regulars as media persons too don’t recall a fire. That does not mean a fire wouldn’t occur. It did with devastating effect. Now that place is virtually inoperable.

Even before the state was formed on a linguistic basis, and the work expanded – no wonder, work always expands in a government – this new structure was built at a cost of under Rs 70 lakh and thrown open in April 1955. To find space for more employees, an annexe was put up in the same campus for about Rs 1.3 cr. Finding that the congestion would not ease, a 19-storey tower was put up right across the road.

It is quite possible that a new complex which is Chhagan Bhujbal’s dream of converting the entire area along the two sides of Madam Cama Road encompassing the ministerial bungalows – they are self-deprecatingly called ‘huts’ in official records – would now find favour. Private developers were involved in the concept and now that Mantralaya is unsafe, would be touted, for, change cometh out of disasters.

Had not the fire devastated the building, perhaps the same casual approach would have continued. Making a fire later much worse. Because, once their needs are served, the VIPs can be ostriches. This fire was needed, sad to say, to wake up the government that the fire under its seat can burn. That is spot is not fire-proof.