This is a disaster waiting to happen – the words of the Delhi high court about restaurants operating from the first floor flats of the Capital’s posh Khan Market with no proper measures for escape in the event of fire. Justice Rajiv Sahai Endlaw said the flats at Khan Market, most of which have now been turned into commercial establishments, were constructed for residential purposes. Most of them have narrow staircases, which pose a threat to customers in the event of a fire. These open onto narrow service lanes in which the fire brigade cannot enter.
While the court has said restaurants and eateries will be liable for the loss or damages to life or property of anyone from any incident of fire in their premises, it must be asked how these establishments came up in the first place with no fire safety measures. The court further directed Delhi Fire Service to re-visit its policy which exempts restaurants with a seating capacity of less than 50 persons from obtaining clearance under the Delhi Fire Service Act.
Even if a restaurant has a small seating capacity, there can be no excuse for not observing fire safety norms. If this is the case with Khan Market, one can imagine the situation in other crowded markets in Delhi, many of which have serious fire hazards like exposed and hanging wiring and few exit routes. This is of a piece with how casually fire safety is taken in India despite major fires in residential complexes, temples and other public places.
Official records show that there are just 2,900 fire stations in all of the country when at least 8,500 are required at the very minimum. Fire is a state subject but most states simply do not provide enough resources for fire safety. The fire departments are ill-equipped and do not have enough staff. Urban fire services are deficient by 72.75% in fire stations, 78.79% in manpower and 22.43% in fire fighting and rescue vehicles.
One way to minimise the outbreak of fires is for the authorities to rigorously enforce the law that any building under construction will not be given an operational clearance unless its promoters comply with fire safety norms.
A safety audit of all buildings must be carried out at regular intervals, something which is hardly ever done. Now we see a case of building permits being handed out liberally with no check on whether safety measures have been incorporated into the plans.
If restaurants or commercial buildings which are fire hazards do not comply with the rules, they should be shut down after proper warning. Fire safety worries are always heightened as Diwali comes around every year. We wish all our readers a safe and happy Diwali.