A lack of equipment and lack of communication in the evacuation process seem to have contributed to the high number of casualties in the Bhubaneswar hospital fire. At least 20 people have died and many more injured in the fire, which began in the dialysis unit of the hospital. The two extinguishers used were hardly enough to douse the flames and smoke spread through the air-conditioning ducts, suffocating patients. In Mumbai, two people have died in a fire in a high-rise building. This raises the issue of fire safety, something which is treated in a cavalier manner in India. After the horrific Upahaar tragedy, the fire safety standards in public buildings in the Capital were reviewed and almost all of them were found wanting. Big plans were drawn up them, but were soon forgotten as the tragedy moved off the front pages.
In urban areas, buildings are constructed with no thought to fire safety. According to an expert fire advisor to the government, India’s urban areas do not have even as one-sixth of the equipment, manpower or training required for fire safety. In rural areas, there is nothing at all. Every year, at least 25,000 people die in fire-related incidents. Since 1981, there has been a pending proposal to set up a National Fire Service Commission, but so far nothing much has happened.
Electrical faults are a major cause for fires, clearly due to poor maintenance. Despite the frequency of fires in buildings, the use of smoke detectors, fire alarms, automatic sprinklers and water mist systems is not always ensured and the authorities do not carry out regular checks to see whether building are complying with the law.
A fire safety audit could work to assess safety standards in a building. But we have no template for the methodology and periodicity of such an audit. Such an exercise should be given over to experts and it should be conducted at least every six months without fail. The buildings or structures which do not comply with the standards must be made to pay fines at the very least.