Fire extinguishers? Check. Sprinklers? Check. Fire alarms? Check.
Everything that was needed was present at the Maharashtra secreatariat in Mumbai on a balmy Thursday afternoon. And yet when a fire broke out in one room, employees discovered that they couldn’t get the fire extinguishers to work, no one heard any fire alarms, and almost every one of the 4,000 people in the maze of the building had to fend for themselves as they attempted to escape.
Any visitor to Mantralaya, as the secretariat is called, will recall the long corridors and a maze of offices that one has to go through to get any work done. Like any government office there are tons of paper, in the form of files, lying around and jostling for space with the office’s occupants and those who have come there for their work.
A Times of India report quotes a bureaucrat who worked in Mantralaya and said that he didn’t remember the fire equipment ever being tested or any mock drills being conducted.
“In the last 10 years, Rs 75 crore was spent on the renovation of the chambers of the Chief Minister, Deputy Chief Minister, senior cabinet members and bureaucrats, but I don’t think we spent even Rs 1 crore to improve the fire-fighting system in Mantralaya,” the senior bureaucrat is quoted as saying.
Even minister Babanrao Pachpute is quoted as saying he tried his hand at using one of the fire extinguishers when the fire broke out in a room next to his but didn’t achieve anything.
Others like Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar was quickly escorted out of his office even as the others were left without any equipment or fire evacuation procedure to guide them. Some climbed down pipes to get to safety, while two persons, Mahesh Gugale and Umesh Kotekar, who had gone to meet the deputy chief minister died due to smoke inhalation.
Reports of fires in major buildings in Mumbai mysteriously seem to read the same no matter how far apart they were written. Fire brigade officials complain of inaccessibility to the location of the fire, there aren’t sufficient precautions in place, recommendations had been ignored or were never given, and often enough, lives are lost because there was no evacuation plan in place.
The Chief Minister has already announced a probe in to the matter by the police but when the government can’t be accountable for the safety of its own offices what does it say about its policies to enforce it for others?
In all likelihood there will be a probe, a cause will be found, a set of recommendations made and possibly another set of files added to the existing piles. Whether they will also be lost in smoke remains to be seen.