After the news of the hospital fire in Kolkata broke on December 9, social media networks went into a frenzy. While some wanted the death sentence for the owners of the AMRI Hospitals where the disaster happened, others demanded answers from the state on why and how it failed to implement fire safety laws. One of the posts succinctly captured the Indian mindset responsible for such mishaps. The Facebook user wrote that he once saw a signboard on a lawn in an American city that said: ‘Don’t walk your dog, pesticide treated.’ Last week, he wanted to drive home the point — a very valid one — that in India, we don’t value life and, therefore, end up with tragedies frequently. To this, if one adds our ‘old’ apathy towards safety norms, we are bound to sustain a sure recipe for frequent disasters.
While last week’s AMRI fire incident shows that the authorities in Kolkata did not learn anything from the 2010 Stephen Court fire — or, for that matter, other major outbreaks across the country, there are plenty of examples to show that the city is not the only one that has a suicidal attitude towards safety regulations meant to minimise the risks of disasters, man-made or natural. Take the case of earthquakes. Studies have shown that maximum deaths happen because people don’t build houses according to the rules laid down for earthquake-prone areas. Most don’t employ certified structural engineers to ensure safe homes, even though such earthquake resistant houses don’t cost a lot more than normal houses. So when an earthquake occurs, like the recent one in Sikkim, the losses are usually far more than they should be. Our monitoring systems are also ineffective. So while AMRI had been warned to clear its basement of hazardous material, no government agency conducted regular spot checks to ensure that they complied with the law. The same holds true when it comes to old buildings in our cities. The urban development agencies only swing into action after a house collapses and people are killed. When it comes to carrying out regular checks, there is little or no interest.
The AMRI incident has proved that money alone can’t buy safety in India. The second-floor cabins that were affected by the fire there did not come cheap for patients: they have a hefty tag of Rs9,000 a day. Moreover, unlike in government hospitals, there was no funds crunch at AMRI. Then why was there no emergency staff on duty or any evacuation plan? It is now clear that there was no chain-of-command that could have taken quick decisions during the emergency. So while the patients suffocated and choked to death, there was no one to give out the basic order of calling the fire brigade. Now that the tragedy has happened, the law will take its course and the case will go on for a while. But if 21st century India, so keen to put on the ‘first world’ tag, has to avoid such pointless tragedies in future, then it has to ensure that laws and norms are adhered to everyday.