Kamala Mills blaze: The general attitude of indifference to fire safety in India needs to change

Our general approach to fire as a hazard is one of indifference.

There is a complete lack of sanctity to a fire alarm bell in an office or residential block. It does not matter whether it is a hospital, theatre, a concert venue, a market place or a residential building. Between short circuits, lit cigarette butts and a complete lack of interest in maintaining basic precautions, we are all susceptible to harm.

The tragedy at Kamala Mills and the death of 14 people sends shock waves throughout the country but nothing is done to educate ourselves on what to do. Mandated fire extinguishers languish on office walls well past their expiry date, little flecks of rust adhering to the nozzle. Go look. On your own floor, you would most probably not know how to even take it off the hook, let alone use it.

Kamala Mills blaze: The general attitude of indifference to fire safety in India needs to change

The fire at Kamala Mills Compound claimed 14 lives. PTI

The scarlet pails of sand kept as a precaution are caked and choked with debris since they are freely used as garbage bins and most of us would have no idea where the emergency exits are positioned. Which is why the maximum deaths (as high as 80 percent in some cases) on crashed aircraft are not the result of the impact but that of asphyxiation from toxic smoke inhalation because passengers had not absorbed the safety lessons. Get low, get smart, get out.

I am sitting hours after this terrible blaze in the Mumbai restaurant in this executive’s office when the clanging starts.

No one moves.

The manager continues sipping his tea. His secretary hovers like a chopper over him and expresses annoyance at the intrusion.

Outside his glass slab of a wall, staff carry on as if there was no bell.

The alarm is now screaming its head off and everyone is grinning and shrugging. So, I decide maybe I should bring it to the manager's notice. I am not yet ready to curl up and become a cinder.

He says, "So what's new?" and shrugs.

I say, "There could be a fire, we were just talking about the Mumbai tragedy."

He says, "No way." He dispatches a person to investigate the cause of the ringing alarm. Too important to save himself.

If it was a fire drill, he is the MD. He is not going to get up from chair and go down with the others.

This criminal attitude prevails in our mindset.

Add to it inflammable materials, a lack of fireproof cladding (we still use plastic instead of aluminum cladding in buildings) and poor wiring besides every occupant’s contribution to the hazard and it is a miracle we don’t have more tragedies.

Violations by builders are legendary. The National Building Code (NBC) 2016 and its various codicils are comprehensive and provide for regulating and preventing fire in India. The NBC 2016 is based on the Code of 2006 and has been updated several times. Yet, it has no sanctity and only in the aftermath are owners or proprietors arrested, an act of misplaced concern seeing as how our official inspections are spotty at best. Every state has its own rules and Acts but they are scarcely imposed and only taken out and brandished in the embers of the aftermath.

One of the major issues is with temporary constructions and pandals and marquee tents. Remember the ‘Made in India’ inferno on the beach in Mumbai’s Girgaum that wiped everything away. In June 1997, we had the infamous Uphaar cinema fire in which 59 people died, most of them by suffocation. A fire broke out in the historical building, Stephen Court in Kolkata, killing 42 people. The fire brigade could not reach for over an hour, there were no proper fire escapes and the exit was locked and no one had the key.

In a school of 900 pupils jammed under thatched roofs, a fire in Tamil Nadu’s Kumbakonam district in 2004, 94 children were incinerated. Not a single fire regulation was being followed.

A hastily constructed marquee was set up for a DAV school function in Haryana’s Mandi Dabwali and caught fire in 1995. Over 300 persons, mostly children, died and again, there were not even rudimentary precautions taken.

In the town of Sivakasi, famous for its cottage industry making fireworks, in 2012, as many as 25 people were burnt to death as a fire engulfed the dodgy ‘tem’ premises.

Each one of these instances underscores a specific flaw. From lack of water to blocked access, use of inflammable materials and employing untrained manpower, overloading and poor wiring all these add up to danger.

Why are we all so blasé about the fire risk? For sure, we believe the odds favour it never happening to us. But the single largest reason behind this absurd notion that drills make you look foolish is that the human race continues to believe it can outrun a fire.

Perish the thought that you are ever in that position but let me just say this to you: Fire wins anytime. You don't have a chance.

What we forget is that in this hi-tech age, you don't need smoke to have a fire.

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Updated Date: Dec 30, 2017 13:17:48 IST

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