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Tuesday, Oct 22, 2019

Why wait for a tragedy to act?

The fire in Andheri’s ESIC Kamgar Hospital, which claimed 10 lives already, had clearly jolted establishments into reassessing their own safety standards.

mumbai Updated: Dec 21, 2018 00:23 IST
Ayaz Memon
Ayaz Memon
Hindustan Times
The fire at Andheri Hospital has claimed 10 lives already.
The fire at Andheri Hospital has claimed 10 lives already. (Hindustan Times)
         

Two meetings I had earlier this week were delayed because the persons I was supposed to see weren’t on their seats at the appointed time. Both had strong reputation for punctuality, so this seemed out of character.

But their absence was not a slur on their credentials, as I realised quickly. In both cases, they had been pulled into an urgent fire-drill exercise supervised by functionaries of the Mumbai Fire Brigade for their respective organisations.

“My apologies,” said one of the persons I was to meet. “This drill was unscheduled, but after what happened this week, the management decided this was top priority.”

Nothing in human nature transforms inaction into action swifter than fear. The fire in Andheri’s ESIC Kamgar Hospital, which has tragically claimed 10 lives already, had clearly jolted establishments into reassessing their own safety standards.

“The drill wasn’t spectacular,” said the second person I met. “It was basically about ensuring firefighting systems were in place and using common sense in a calamity. But I must admit the system we had wasn’t foolproof, nor did we have knowledge to cope with such crisis.”

This raises the question why such drills aren’t done regularly. Why can’t organisations and establishments – commercial and residential – carry out such drill regularly? Why wait for a tragedy to happen?

There are two reasons for this. One, fire accidents are not as frequent as those we see on roads, so the danger is thought to be minimal. Two, we expect that necessary precautions against this have been ensured by authorities: municipal corporation, organisations, housing societies, et al.

Both assumptions lull us into complacency, but are flawed.

While fire accidents may be fewer compared to road accidents, they are almost always deadlier. 10 people have died in the Kamgar Hospital fire already. The toll could go up.

Not too long ago, 14 lives were lost in a couple of pubs in Kamala Mills. This is not a small toll. Add to this the suffering to property and business, and the loss is even more substantial.

But what’s galling is how essential checks and balances against such eventualities are glossed over by authorities through corruption or use of influence by those in power. This belies the very trust on which the second assumption – that safety precautions have been adhered to – is made.

The Kamala Mills fire, as we now know, was a result of basic safety norms being flouted on the intervention of some people in the powers that be. In the case of the Kamgar Hospital, as is coming to light, it is because of apathy, and lack of necessary due diligence.

While two employees of a construction company that was engaged for repair work at the hospital were arrested for negligence and violating the Maharashtra Fire and Safety Act, this should not obscure how authorities have failed miserably in ensuring that basic minimum safety standards had been instituted/maintained.

For instance, a fire had broken out in the same hospital in March, but no follow-up action was taken. Worse, Kamgar had failed a fire safety audit as recently as 17 days ago, but nobody was roused into taking swift and strict action. What is most disturbing, however, as this newspaper reported on Wednesday, it is not just Kamgar Hospital that was at risk.

According to the Mumbai Fire Brigade which had inspected 92 hospitals nine, including five run by the municipal corporation, were all flouting fire safety norms. The five civic-run hospitals in question were Kasturba Hospital, TB Hospital in Sewri, Acworth Municipal Hospital for Leprosy in Wadala, ENT Hospital in Fort and Municipal Eye Hospital in Kamathipura.

As the newspaper reports, in 2011, 66 of 67 hospitals were made to comply with fire safety rules which they had either ignored or let lapse. This includes such elementary measures such as emergency exits, fire extinguishers, sprinkler, etc.

The crisis does not start and end with municipal hospitals, of course. If there was to be a hard audit of establishments – eateries, theatres, shops, malls, offices, commercial and residential buildings – allowed to function without adequate fire safety, a fair guess is it would run into thousands.

That’s a crisis of monumental scale. When will the authorities wake up?

First Published: Dec 21, 2018 00:23 IST

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