On Thursday, as the seat of the state government, Mantralaya, fell casualty to a major fire there was an overwhelming sentiment that this was a disaster waiting to happen.
The eight-storey state secretariat building (including a mezzanine floor) has honeycombed annexes, cubicles housing 39 departments, besides individual ministers’ offices, which have been added to and altered with complete disregard to norms.
Lack of space meant several files kept in towering heaps in the corridors, sometimes even blocking exits or entries. With rats running through the complicated wiring, and cylinders placed in the canteen on the top floor, even casual observers could see that this was a scene for a fire accident.
But, it’s not just a casual observation. A fire audit carried out in 2008 had pointed out 32 risks in the Mantralaya. With nearly 2,000 staffers and additional 2,000 visitors coming into the state secretariat every day, one would think that the government would have taken the audit more seriously.
When the fire broke out at 2:40pm on Thursday, all these elements added to transform a small fire into a complete disaster. Adding to the chaos were staffers running down the staircases causing a near stampede, officials climbing down pipes and visitors trying to jump from the third and fourth floors of the building.
Forest minister Babanrao Pachpute, whose office is on the fourth floor, told HT, “My concern was for the other people so I asked them to evacuate. I even tried to use the fire extinguisher, but it didn’t work.”
The fire-fighting system was either not activated or was not functional. Many staff members complained that the fire alarm did not go off. An officer on special duty, who made his way from the fourth floor, said, “I didn’t hear any alarm. The fire brigade started operations only after 20 minutes. Initially, there was only one fire engine and it couldn’t even reach the fourth floor.”
A group of public relations officers were isolated in a room for 45 minutes. They climbed down a pipe from the sixth floor to the fifth floor, where they were finally rescued.
Praveen Singh Pardeshi, relief and rehabilitation secretary, admitted, “There were some hurdles before starting operations, but they were addressed immediately. We will be doing a fire audit soon.”