Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 11 July 2020

Delhi fire was a disaster waiting to happen, say activists

Flouting of building and safety rules continues despite promises by authorities after each fire tragedy

Relatives of victims in the New Delhi factory fire plead for ambulances to carry the bodies back to their home towns on December 9, 2019. AFP
Relatives of victims in the New Delhi factory fire plead for ambulances to carry the bodies back to their home towns on December 9, 2019. AFP

Zakir Hussain broke down in tears and slumped to the ground as a policeman showed him a picture of his dead brother on a mobile phone outside a Delhi hospital morgue.

His younger brother Shakir was among the 43 workers killed in a devastating blaze on Sunday, which ripped through a five-storey building in the narrow alleyways of the Indian capital.

"My beloved brother is no more,” Mr Hussain, 32, wailed as friends and relatives comforted him. "Oh my darling brother. He is dead, he is dead."

Shakir, 28, worked and lived in the building that doubled as factory units and residential quarters for more than 100 migrant workers.

More than 30 firefighters battled the fire for hours inside the congested neighbourhood of Sadar Bazar, where a maze of electricity and telephone wires dangle overhead.

Doctors said that most of the deaths were caused by asphyxiation but about 58 survived, and 16 were still being treated in hospital.

Mr Hussain's grief is shared by dozens of families, who gathered outside the morgue again on Monday waiting for news. They said the building was like a powder keg waiting to explode.

Wajid Ali, who lost two of his relatives in the fire, said the building was like a prison, with no easy way to escape and no safety equipment.

"The building had a single exit and entry point. No emergency exits and pigeonhole, iron-grille windows. There were no fire extinguishers or alarms," Mr Ali said.

He said many factories that made purses, jackets and schoolbags were housed illegally in 80 rooms around the building.

Authorities said the building did not have a fire safety certificate and blamed an short-circuit for starting the fire.

The owner of the building and his manager have been arrested on charges of manslaughter.

The incident is sadly not isolated. India has a dismal record in fire safety, with lax enforcement of building laws leading to many tragedies.

The latest government figures show 16,900 people were killed and 998 injured in 16,995 fires in 2016, half of them in residential buildings.

Sunday's fire is the deadliest in Delhi since 59 were killed in the Uphaar cinema blaze of 1997.

In February, at least 17 guests died in a hotel fire, and less than a year before that, 18 died at a plastic manufacturing unit in the capital.

The authorities promise improved safety measures after each deadly fire but activists say that it is non-compliance with existing rules that cause the problem.

“Incidents are happening because the safety of occupants is ignored,” said K C Dominic, president of the non-profit Fire and Security Association of India.

“The fire department is not an independent body in many states and the issuing of licences and certificates comes under municipal corporations," Mr Dominic said.

"But for various reasons, the recommendations for fire safety from the fire department are not adhered to."

Delhi's chief fire officer, Atul Garg, said his force was well equipped and trained to deal with large incidents, but they often struggled in the city's narrow lanes and with its scarce water supplies.

Experts say most of the fire accidents in cities have occurred because of negligence in building design and lack of safety measures.

In Delhi, there are 1,700 illegal settlements where cottage industries thrive in small, crowded buildings.

The multi-storey structures are built illegally without adequate safeguards, and have single entry-exit points and poor ventilation.

"Delhi is a disaster waiting to happen,” said A G Krishna Menon, an urban planner and conservation consultant.

"The town planning is there but buildings are misused. Authorities do not monitor and stop illegal constructions or the illegal running of factories.

Mr Menon blamed corruption and bad governance.

Activists say a low conviction rate is also responsible for persistent fire tragedies in the country.

Despite the high number of deaths, culprits are often arrested under laws that carry relatively lenient sentences.

“The system is so corrupt you feel let down,” said Neelam Krishnamoorthy, convener of the Association of Victims of the Uphaar Tragedy.

The group has been fighting for justice for the victims of the cinema fire, including two of Ms Krishnamoorthy's children.

Although the Supreme Court convicted the two owners of the cinema in 2014 after a High Court acquittal, it later released one of them because of old age and the other was sentenced to a year in jail with a fine of 300 million rupees (Dh15.5m).

Updated: December 10, 2019 03:02 AM

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