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How many fires will it take for Mumbai to learn a lesson?

On Thursday afternoon, after a bout of physiotherapy at Churchgate for my dodgy knee, I was headed towards Colaba when I found myself stranded near Sachivalaya for over an hour in a traffic jam.

india Updated: Jun 24, 2012 00:34 IST
Ayaz Memon

On Thursday afternoon, after a bout of physiotherapy at Churchgate for my dodgy knee, I was headed towards Colaba when I found myself stranded near Sachivalaya for over an hour in a traffic jam. People hollered invectives at each other and honked away in anger and anguish as the cars piled up.

Unaware of the fire that had broken out at Mantralaya, I had driven straight into this mayhem near the state headquarters. The panic-stricken shouting of people from within and outside the building was compounded by the clanging of several fire engines, followed a little later by the roar of naval helicopters.

“It’s like a scene out of The Towering Inferno,” said somebody on the footpath. We were near the Gandhi statue opposite the barracks that house ministers. Around us, people were getting out of their cars and gathering around.

The 1974 Steve McQueen-Paul Newman-William Holden-Faye Dunaway thriller (which, incidentally, ran for several weeks at Eros theatre, not far from Mantralaya) is deployed as a metaphor wherever a tall building catches fire.

Where Mumbai is concerned, the metaphor is perhaps more valid today than when the movie released here. Then, there were barely ten skyscrapers in South Mumbai; now almost the entire skyline seems to be dotted with buildings that rise higher than, say, 25 storeys.

When a fire like the one at Man-tralaya breaks out, it both enrages and engages the denizens of Mumbai because their worst fears are confirmed. Conspiracy theories apart, I reckon paranoia is getting into the DNA of the Mumbaiite because of the city’s linear layout, its cheek-by-jowl habitations, the pace at which it operates and the utter lack of systems and processes to prevent such accidents.

For the record, Mumbai’s most dramatic fire to date has been the series of explosions on SS Fort Stikine while it was berthed at the Victoria dock in 1944. The Maharashtra Fire Services website, under the heading ‘Saga of Sacrifice’, observes:

“The ship contained nearly 1,200 tons of explosives, cotton bales and oil drums. The destruction was appalling. Prince’s and Victoria Docks, were full of blazing and drifting ships, while other sank near the littered which they had been-moored. The approach channels the docks were littered with obstruction, and a vast land area of various types of buildings, roads and railways were utterly devastated. Beyond this area fires raged caused by the wide dispersal of incendiary material from fatal ship. [sic]”

Casualties were in the range of 230 but the exact number was never known. As a result of the tremendous work done by the Mumbai Fire Brigade in dealing with the consequences on sea and land, the day of the tragedy, April 14, is marked as Fire Services Day.

But as Thursday’s fire demonstrates, fire safety is still very low on our list of priorities.

The seat of our state administration did not have proper procedures in place to deal with fire — neither drill protocols nor alarms or fire extinguishers. If Mantralaya can be so callous — or badly served — the state of the rest of the city can well be imagined!

Whenever there is a major crisis in the city, the fire brigade provides noble and yeoman’s service. But all the warnings given by fire officers are promptly forgotten the next day. A very basic nod is given to fire precautions when building permissions are given, and more heartache is expended over sufficient parking space for residents than over whether a fire engine will ever be able to enter the building.

In many parts of the island city, the problem is more severe because buildings are very close to each other and growth has been higgledy-piggledy. The ‘sharing’ of electricity wires adds to the dangers of short circuits. Inflammables like carelessly used gas cylinders add to the threat.

The November 2011 fire that burnt down the popular Manish Market near Crawford Market is a case in point. I am willing to wager that if a survey was done, at least 50 per cent of the buildings in Mumbai would be found to be fire hazards. But nobody cares until tragedy strikes.

The hapless fire department continues to fight a losing battle as state government departments clear projects irrespective of existing and lurking dangers. The stakes they face are possibly higher than those faced by any other preventive body, but they rarely get the accolades they deserve.

But then firefighting, I reckon, is not as sexy as busting a nightclub.

When he is not following sport, Ayaz Memon writes about the city and its different worlds.