Three back-to-back fires in Delhi a grim reminder of lack of focus on prevention, modernisation

  • As many as 17 people were killed in a fire at Hotel Arpit Palace in Delhi's Karol Bagh area

  • A senior Delhi Fire Services official said they were too short-staffed to conduct inspections

  • The three fires in Delhi highlight India's unpreparedness to tackle blazes

"When the fire brigade pulled us out of our fourth-floor room, we could see flames raging from the windows of the second and third floors. Had there been a delay of even a couple of minutes, my wife, my son and I would have been reduced to ashes," shared Umang Shresht, who was sound asleep in Room 401 until the sound of the roaring flames jolted his senses.

One of the survivors of the fire that erupted at Delhi's Hotel Arpit Palace around 3 am on Tuesday, Umang is a resident of Nepal's Chitwan district. His 5-year-old son Saumya suffers from a rare disease and has been undergoing treatment at the National Capital's Ganga Ram Hospital, which is what brings the family to Delhi every year.

 Three back-to-back fires in Delhi a grim reminder of lack of focus on prevention, modernisation

Hotel Arpit Palace in Delhi's Karol Bagh. Pallavi Rebbapragada

The hotel, which offers rooms starting from Rs 3,500 a night, was popular with medical tourists. One of the victims has been identified as a Myanmarese.

The Delhi Police has registered a case against the owners of Hotel Arpit Palace — one of whom was arrested on Sunday — under sections 304 and 308 of the Indian Penal Code. A few employees were also taken into custody after Delhi Fire Service officials alleged that they took matters into their own hands instead of informing them, which caused a life-altering delay for many.

A shortage of fire extinguishers and sliding windows that didn't open added fuel to fire. Delhi Police Deputy Commissioner (Keshavpur Zone) Ira Singhal has been given charge of the investigation.

Two days after this devastating blaze, another fire razed no less than 250 mud-and-sheet homes in a slum colony in North Delhi's Paschim Vihar locality. Authorities have been ordered to make arrangements for temporary lodging. There were no casualties in this fire, and Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has promised compensation of Rs 25,000 to each home owner.

Hours later, the same day, a third fire broke out at a factory, as large as one acre, in Naraina, South West Delhi. The basement of the factory was being used as a warehouse for Archies' gifts and contained several bottles of perfume. No casualties were reported in this blaze either.

Sunil Choudhary, deputy chief fire officer of the New Delhi Zone, hasn't slept for three nights straight.

"At the Karol Bagh hotel, fibre and wood sheets had been installed on passageways and staircases, so the building's NOC (No objection Certificate) has been withdrawn. At the Naraina factory, to our surprise, we found that the factory was functioning without an NOC," he said, adding that the Delhi Fire Services is too short-staffed to be able to conduct inspections except when they are granting NOCs to new buildings.

So what happens to the older buildings? What happens to modifications made to the newer ones? The 1,700-strong team is only half its strength on any given day because firefighters work and rest in 24-hour shifts.

The three back-to-back fires in Delhi may have had vastly different causes, but the country's unpreparedness has the same foundation — lack of funds to modernise the fire services and lack of political will to execute that modernisation. The 2018 FICCI report titled 'Countrywide Fire Hazard and Risk Analysis for Revamping the Fire and Emergency Services in India', stated that fire and emergency services in the country grow on an ad-hoc basis without much scientific analysis of the existing risks to different parts of India, which need varying equipment depending on the risk.

According to the norms of the Standing Fire and Advisory Council, there is a 97.54 percent shortfall of fire stations in the country, 80.04 percent in firefighting and rescue vehicles and 96.28 percent in terms of fire personnel. In India, the FICCI report states, there are about 3,000 operational fire stations, and in 2016, the Delhi Fire Services had  a vacancy for 800 firefighters.

Additionally, the directorate general of fire services, civil defence and home guards of the Ministry of Home Affairs said on its website: "The Government of India launched a scheme on the modernisation of fire and emergency services for a total outlay of Rs 75 crore on 29 October, 2014, and Rs 30 crore was released in 2014-15 to the states. The scheme has since been subsumed in the state plan funds wef 1 April, 2015, and hence, no Budget provision was made during 2015-16 to the states. However, Rs 4 crore was released to two Union Territories with legislature during 2015-16 ."

Ironically, a fire had broken out at the Parliament before the 2017-18 Union Budget was to be presented, but neither the Budget speech nor the expenditure Budget featured fire safety.

A 2012 report, available on the website of deputy general of fire services, details the roadmap and investment plan for the next 10 years, which includes both capital and recurring expenditures. In 2012, an RMSI report estimated that just Delhi needed an investment of around Rs 4,927 crore for a period of 10 years for its fire services.

However, fire safety is a state subject. In Delhi, where the AAP government is always at loggerheads with the Centre, disruptions and delays in governance is common. Dr GC Mishra, director of Delhi Fire Services, told Firstpost that the department has up to 12 lakh litres of water on the wheels, of which metro stations have four lakh litres. The Delhi Jal Board's filter points are also available to the city's firefighters.

"Unlike in developed countries, we do not have high-quality drainage systems installed in our water mains, and water supply is intermittent," he said.

As many as 17 people, including a child, were killed and 11 were injured after a massive fire broke out at the hotel. Pallavi Rebbapragada

As many as 17 people, including a child, were killed and 11 were injured after a massive fire broke out at the hotel. Pallavi Rebbapragada

On the problem of traffic reducing response time, he highlighted how to douse fires in congested areas like Old Delhi, small vehicles were sent, but that it became a challenging task as the extinguishing agents were limited.

Mishra also acknowledged the challenge of unauthorised colonies in urban villages, such as the one in Paschim Vihar that went up in flames last week.

SK Dheri, former chief of the Delhi Fire Services who was also at the helm of fire safety in the city during the 1977 Uphaar tragedy, told Firstpost that the major lacuna is the lack of a fire prevention wing within the firefighting forces in not just Delhi but in states across India. He also believes that funds are not being utilised due to the constant clash between the AAP government and the Centre.

"When I retired from service in 2001, the number of fire stations had increased from 15 to 43. Today, 17 years later, the number stands at 61," he said, adding that the multiplicity of municipal agencies — MCDs, the NDMC, DDA and Cantonment Board — is not really a problem because each body seeks clearance from the fire officer.

However, the implementation of Part 4 of the National Building Code (NBC), which pertains to fire, remains a challenge. Nineteen states, including Delhi, have adopted the clause as a statutory, but keeping a decentralised check is a challenge.

Dheri, who is also the national convenor of the NBC, told Firstpost that the lack of teams fully dedicated to the prevention of fires are the biggest lacuna in the fire safety framework.

"During the Uphaar tragedy, I was interrogated for 12 hours, and the culprits were punished years later. If the same team does both operations and inspection work, then it will be harder to catch hold of and follow up on those breaking the law," he explained, adding that it will be make enforcement of acts and codes easier if a prevention team is set up.

What needs to burn is the 'not-the-first-fire-not-the-last-fire' kind of complacency that has come to define the way the country perceives disaster.

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Updated Date: Feb 17, 2019 14:22:41 IST