It is hard to imagine that a basic life force could also be lethal. Fire has ironical characteristics. It is imperative then that its perils are mitigated.
As urban development in India is proceeding at a mammoth pace, the pressure of real estate is strangling cities, hastening them towards appropriating improper planning and designs. As laws and guidelines are made stricter, the usage of illegal means of design and construction to fulfil demands and deadlines are easily visible. Today, 80% of Delhi consists of unauthorised and illegal settlements, where no single agency can be held solely responsible for a fire-outbreak, nor can any authority be appointed for a complete elimination of the conditions leading to fire calamities. Politicians, city administrators, builders, architects, engineers and end-users, each in their own capacity, need to recognise that development cannot be carried at the cost of human lives. Provisions for fire safety are as important for people living in unauthorised colonies as for those dwelling in high-end apartments or bungalows.
In India, there is very limited public awareness about fire hazards. The issue of poor planning — resulting from scattered population densities — and flaws exist at the design level, which is aimed to achieve maximum useable floor area. The execution process, too, is crippled by haste of deadlines and the use of substandard materials. Unfortunately, in most cases, designs are far from the ones which are originally sanctioned.
These are some of the factors fuelling illegal constructions in most metropolitan cities, including Delhi. So, whether it is the crammed godowns of Chandni Chowk or the high-end bungalows of Sainik Farms, under no circumstances can a complete assurance against fire calamities be guaranteed. Public buildings and spaces like museums, markets and malls are also vulnerable to fire hazards. The recent fire outbreak at the Natural Museum of Natural History is a testimony to this fact.
In order to have more clarity and a systematic approach to strengthen the system of fire-proof planning and design, a four-pronged approach can be observed.
Fire protection can be ensured by minimising the use of combustible materials, restricting the construction of oil-filled transformers in basements, using fire-retarding paints and coatings and by installing lightening arrestors. Effective fire alarm systems and having a centralised infrastructure to check electrical and other service load fluctuations, which can help in fire detection. In case of a fire outbreak, the use of fire-extinguishers, inert gas flooding systems, water-sprinkler systems and fire hydrant systems can guard against the damage done to life and property. Finally, having adequate ventilation, including fire-lifts, staircases, balconies and terraces can act as fire refuges and avert panic.
Stricter laws and ground checks can act against violations as properties could be sealed. Safety must no longer be considered the responsibility of designers alone, but should be treated as the right of every citizen.
Dikshu C Kukreja is an architect and principal of a design firm which is ranked amongst the world’s top 100
The views expressed are personal