Kamala Mills fire: BMC can't be its own judge, report clearing civic body hard to digest

The primary responsibility for the fire that burnt down two restaurants in Mumbai's Kamala Mills compound on 29 December lies with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), and as the head of the civic body, with the city commissioner.

Although the BMC chief heads the authority which is at the centre of criticism, he was allowed to judge his own organisation. That makes this entire exercise a joke. Someone who is at the helm of affairs must have moral responsibility towards it, apart from the technical responsibility. But the language, the tone of the BMC's report, as also the comments that came before it was released seem to suggest that he hasn't taken any responsibility for what has happened.

The way I look at it is that there are two parties to it: One, the corporation, and second, the individual at the helm of this organisation, Ajoy Mehta. We need to call this out as a farce.

A fire in Mumbai's Kamala Mills compound killed 14 people on 29 December. PTI

A fire in Mumbai's Kamala Mills compound killed 14 people on 29 December. PTI

There was some blatant misuse of power, and even though things required by law were not fulfilled, conditional clearances were given by the BMC. This is a total infringement of the rule of law. If you're an agency required to uphold the rule of law, there is no question of giving such "conditional clearances".

Looking at the law itself, the rules we have to do business in are very cumbersome. They force people to undercut the law. We have policies and acts which aren't conducive to the environment we are in today. What we need is an overhaul of these, as also of the mindset of people. Businessmen know they can get away with corruption, which is an unfortunate reality. That can't be allowed to be the case. Rule of law needs to be implemented and followed.

The BMC has spoken about "ease of doing business", but I don't think even they understand what the term means. The way a citizen would understand "ease of doing business" is that the regulatory body becomes a "facilitator", not an impediment towards an activity. But given the archaic laws the BMC has, it doesn't even understand this. Moreover, these laws lead to corrupt practices; they force people to become corrupt, or create an atmosphere for this to be the case.

In fact, the laws are so archaic that forget the people, even the corporation itself doesn't understand what they mean. If officers are honest, they will do their best to be facilitators, but corrupt ones will use laws for their own benefit.

The report talks about getting the required permissions, but the documents regarding the clearances are all with the agency, with any of the hundreds of departments. A businessman basically has to run around, go to 20 different departments, put all the documents in a file together, then get this file to travel to dozens different desks. Is this ease of doing business? What they should ideally do is have one online portal where everything is listed out properly, which would save citizens the trouble of running around.

Ideas like self-assessment are great, but they are shifting the goalposts from the agency to the citizens, and are trying to set the main issue aside. Also, in order to have this in place, the civic body need to create the required backend at its end. But the BMC has instead just paid lip service to the cause. If it actually meant it, it could have done this years ago. Moreover, instead of using technology to save time, it's using terms like self-assessment without any meaning. The commissioner needs to realise he was appointed by the people to work for their benefit as a facilitator, not make them do his work for him.

Allowing the BMC to become its own judge is not correct. What the corporators should have done is to form an independent panel to probe the Kamala Mills fire. This panel could have included people from the industry, citizens' groups, senior officers, etc. It would have looked at the fire, but the suggestions it gave would have been all-encompassing, a thorough look at the BMC's functioning. Instead of that, what we have is this misleading report.

Having said that, we do have some good ideas in the report. Ideas like self-regulation and self-assessment and incentivising will help. But these are just that: Great ideas. The civic body doesn't have the backend currently to facilitate all this.

We are already in the age of social media. There is a lot of information about several issues online, and the civic body could do a far more effective job if it just scrutinised this.

And this is not all. The civic body has also recommended an employee be hired in charge of fire safety norms. I don't even know what they expect with this. They are actually giving rise to an extra level of bureaucracy, which gives yet another person the chance of harassing people. Not to mention that smaller organisations won't be able to afford hiring a person like this.

It's sad that the BMC has such good ideas, but the ideas are difficult to translate into reality.

Read the full report here:

The author is project director, Praja Foundation, an organisation which works on urban governance. As told to Aashray Hariharan


Updated Date: Jan 19, 2018 21:25 PM

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