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Joint inspections, surprise checks must for fire safety

Twenty-two years after the Uphaar fire tragedy, the Hotel Arpit Palace staff had no training on how to use fire-fighting equipment.

delhi Updated: Feb 18, 2019 16:05 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times
hotel arpit palace fire,karol bagh hotel fire,delhi hotel fire
Firefighters seen outside Hotel Arpit Palace after fire broke out at the hotel, at Karol Bagh, in New Delhi, on Tuesday, February 12, 2019. (Sanchit Khanna/HT Photo )

Almost every man-made tragedy in Delhi follows a similar cycle of reactions — enquiries show that the violations that led to the mishap were conspicuous, but the authorities chose to do nothing about it; media reports show how offenders circumvented norms; and with multiple agencies involved in licensing and enforcement, the finer points always go unheard in the din of the blame game.

The same cycle played out in the aftermath of the fire that killed 17 people in a guest house in Karol Bagh last Tuesday.

The property in question — grandly called Hotel Arpit Palace — was not a hotel. It had a licence for a guest house issued by police that allows only boarding and lodging facilities.

But, almost all such guest houses in Karol Bagh and the rest of the city add a kitchen, otherwise prohibited in such establishments, by obtaining a licence for a restaurant they run from the same building.

The owners of Hotel Arpit made multiple kitchens, including an illegal one on the rooftop. This rooftop kitchen, along with other modifications, did not show up in the last fire safety inspection conducted in 2017, fire officials say.

Read | Delhi police arrest Rakesh Goel, owner of Karol Bagh hotel Arpit Palace where 17 people died in a fire

The fire inspection certification holds good for three years. The municipal corporation issued the health licence that is renewed every year.

However, both police and municipal officials handed out renewal certificates thereafter without noticing or flagging blatant violations.

For years, no question was asked on the building norms violations because Karol Bagh is a marked as a “special area” in the Master Plan notified in 2007 and gets immunity from sealing and demolitions under the Delhi Laws (Special Provisions) Act.

After the tragedy, the government has announced the sealing of guest houses that do not comply with the fire safety norms. The fire rules will be revised to include an exhaustive list of inflammable materials that should not be used in buildings.

“It should have anyway been part of the fire safety checklist”, says Delhi’s former fire chief SK Dheri, pointing out that the National Building Code has guidelines on how buildings must be designed and maintained for fire safety. But rules help only when they are enforced. In Delhi, they are most blatantly violated or circumvented.

Read | 30 Karol Bagh hotels to be shut over fire safety

For instance, the Bawana factory fire last year that killed as many people as the Hotel Arpit fire was registered as a plastic-manufacturing unit, but was used to package firecrackers illegally.

For factories, the building code stipulates elaborate safety norms.

But, any unit working out of a covered area of less than 250 square metres on all floors is exempt from seeking a fire safety certificate.

Many of the factories that catch fire in Delhi fall in the exempted category.

The fire department that has the dual responsibilities of handling emergencies and conducting fire inspections is unable to handle fire prevention work. It is already constrained, working on 40% of the sanctioned staff strength.

Once the fire safety licence is granted, there is no inspection until it comes up for renewal three years later. Also, with multiple agencies involved in issuing a range of licences and no objection certificates, it makes sense to have joint on-site inspections at regular intervals, as suggested by the Law Commission of India in a 2012 consultation paper on man-made disasters.

The paper sought scrutiny of buildings at the construction stage and not just after they were completed. Most importantly, it asked for “mandatory re-inspections at specified intervals” which must be laid down either in the rules or by way of administrative instructions.

Neelam Krishnamoorthy from the Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy, which was consulted by the Law Commission, says the authorities could begin by conducting surprise inspections.

“It is the only way to ensure that whatever fire safety apparatus that is found installed at the time of certification is in a working condition,” she says.

In the Uphaar fire tragedy that killed 59 people in 1997, the basic fire safety installations such as emergency lights, footlights and exit lights were non-functional and the exit doors were blocked.

Twenty-two years on, the Hotel Arpit staff had no training on how to use the fire-fighting equipment.

There was no signage to guide people to the lone fire exit in the building, which was anyway blocked.

It is time Delhi learnt its lessons.

First Published: Feb 18, 2019 12:19 IST