Reasons for Aarey Colony fire inconclusive, says Mumbai fire dept: Report finds 29 instances of such blazes since 2007

On 3 December, a massive fire broke out at an open plot of land in Mumbai's Aarey Colony, near the Sanjay Gandhi National Park — the largest green lung in the metropolis. With the fire department now having submitted its report into the incident, questions linger over whether there was foul play in the incident. Some activists have termed the fire a deliberate act.

The report of the fire department stated, "During the course of inspection, some bottles, half-burnt tyre (sic), plastics, etc. articles were noticed in the central region of the hill, which denotes the trespassing by unauthorised persons in the said land area. Also, in spite of the huge fire, there were some unaffected/unburnt portions on the hillock which further raises the possibility of some suspicious activity in the said land area.” The report concluded that the cause of the fire was 'doubtful.'

Interestingly, the report noted that since 2007, there were 29 such instances where fire broke out at the same plot of land, albeit minor ones which were classified as Level-I blazes. The fire which occurred on 3 December was a relatively major one, and was classified as Level-III.

Speaking to Firstpost, Mumbai’s Chief Fire Officer Prabhat Rahangdale said, "While there have been several fires at the plot, these have taken place over the course of many years. In the recent case, whether or not there is any foul play involved is something for the police to investigate."

A police official said, "We are investigating all angles into the possible cause of the incident. Traces of inflammable material which were found on the soil at the spot have been sent to a forensic laboratory, and we are awaiting their report. Once we get the report, there will be more clarity on what may have led to the blaze."

However, Stalin Dayanand director of projects with NGO Vanashakti believes that the fire is unlikely to have been due to accidental causes. "It is certainly not a normal occurrence for so many fires to take place at the same plot in the past few years. Also, the fact that a part of the hillock was left untouched is definitely suspicious. This may be a part of a plot to ensure that no vegetation grows there, so that the question of seeking permission to cut trees does not arise."

Dayanand further cited satellite images over the years to buttress his argument. In a letter to various authorities in May 2015, he had flagged off the “steady transformation of landscape and denuding of trees” in roughly the same area. He had further written, "A wall has been built to deprive the natural flow of water in this mountain thereby depriving the trees inside the wall from getting water during the monsoons. Levelling of land and alteration of water courses that carry run off from the mountains is happening here."

 Reasons for Aarey Colony fire inconclusive, says Mumbai fire dept: Report finds 29 instances of such blazes since 2007

Satellite image from 2013

Satellite images from 2014.

Satellite images from 2014.

The plot where the fire took place belongs to the FE Dinshaw Trust and is to be developed by the construction firm Raheja Constructions. However, after disagreements between the two parties, both filed cases against each other in court. The dispute is presently pending in the Bombay High Court.

When asked about the possible reason for the fire, Mahendra Chande, the vice-president of Raheja Constructions, said, "While a high wall has been constructed around most of the plot, a part of the area is accessible from outside through a nallah. Due to this, unauthorised people sometimes trespass on to the plot and engage in anti-social activities. The fire may have been caused by some such people who entered the plot illegally. In any case, there is no connection between the ongoing court case and the fire, and there is no such foul play involved."

Incidentally, this is not the first time in recent years that speculations of foul play were sparked off over the plot. The fire at the Deonar landfill in February, 2016 is a case in point. While firefighters were still trying to bring the blaze under control, Mumbai's municipal commissioner Ajoy Mehta and the then police commissioner Datta Padsalgikar had expressed the possibility that it may have been deliberately ignited. Following the incident, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) blamed it on rag pickers and barred them from entering the dumping ground.

In 2012, a massive fire at the Mantralaya, the Maharashtra government’s secretariat, had led to similar allegations. Several leaders who were then in the Opposition, including the BJP’s Vinod Tawde and Shiv Sena’s Subhash Desai had expressed the possibility of a conspiracy behind the incident. Following the incident, there were many reports of Right to Information (RTI) activists being denied information on important issues, with officials stating that the concerned records were burnt in the fire. In one case reported in The Indian Express, a public information officer gave two conflicting answers to the same query. When the chief secretary’s office forwarded the RTI query to the officer, he replied that the file was burnt during the Mantralaya fire. However, in reply to a query made directly to the concerned department, he reportedly made no mention of the fire, and stated that no record as stated in the application existed.

Updated Date: Dec 26, 2018 17:18:03 IST