City fire safety trapped in smoke

It has been two months since Bengaluru witnessed the fire at Carlton towers. Nine lives were lost. Then came the fire at Gold towers on Residency Road and another in a godown in Peenya. Just four months into 2010 and the fire department has attended to over 900 fire-related calls.

All this and there is still no system in place to periodically check for fire safety violations in high-rise buildings in the city. While officials of the Karnataka State Fire and Emergency Services (KSFES) are toothless as they do not have powers to reinspect Bengaluru’s buildings after issuing the Occupancy Certificate, the BBMP Commissioner Bharat Lal Meena says that ‘discussions are on’ to decide on how to operate along with fire department.

BM Shekar

Assistant Fire Station Officer B M Shekar shows the fire safety installations in place at the Public Utility building on MG Road. However, the state government is yet to formulate a plan to check high-rises for fire compliance. Pic: Vaishnavi Vittal

"We are still discussing. We alone can’t do this. We need a fire officer. We are working on this", Meena says, refusing to go into specifics. He, however, says that the BBMP is planning to digitise copies of all plan sanctions, so as to make it easier at the time of searching for these documents.

Ask him again as to what has been the BBMP’s plan of action since the Carlton fire, the Commissioner simply says, "We are working out. We’ll discuss." He also says that complaints regarding unauthorised buildings can be made to the Joint Director of Town Planning, B M Tirakanagoudar. Again, he remains non-comittal about the exact steps that will be taken once a complaint is placed. "We’ll look into it. We’ll take action against the owner."

Tirakanagoudar told Citizen Matters that he has not received any complaint so far.

The fire department, meanwhile, has received several complaints about unsafe buildings. But B G Chengappa, Director, KSFES, says, "We have tried visiting these buildings but people are not cooperating." He adds that the department is continuing to look into these complaints and will deal with them.

No periodic inspection

On the other hand, the fire department has clearly stated to the state government that they are helpless with regard to fire unsafe buildings in the city. In a report to the Home department, dated March 29th 2010, the KSFES states, "No where in the NBC (National Building Code) or Building Bye-laws/Zoning Regulations re-inspection provision by various authorities have been incorporated. In this case the officers of Karnataka State Fire & Emergency Service Department have not visited/inspected the building (Carlton towers) since its clearance for occupation on 27-07-1999".

This is a report by a technical committee formed to investigate the cause of the fire at Carlton towers and ascertain the lapses. This committee consisted of three officials of the fire department – P S Sandhu, Inspector General of Police and Additional Director General, B G Chengappa and B K Hamppagol, Deputy Director (Techincal) – and two external experts – Prof Dr R N Iyengar, Director, Centre for Disaster Mitigation and R A Venkitachalam, Vice President and Managing Director, UL India Pvt Ltd. You can read the entire report here.

The technical committee recommends that a legislation be introduced "to re-inspect all the High Rise buildings every year or once in two years to ensure the compliance of all fire prevention and fire fighting measures after collecting a self appraisal report from the owner/occupiers of the building. The officer’s strength of the department will have to be augmented before the implementation. Penal provisions have to be incorporated to act as deterrent."

Inspector General of Police and Additional Director General of KSFES, P S Sandhu, says that the Home Minister will soon call for a meeting to discuss these issues.

Taking a cue from Delhi

As the issue of inspection of buildings arises, both members of ‘Beyond Carlton’ and IGP-Additional Director General P S Sandhu pointed to the Delhi Fire Prevention and Fire Safety act, 1986. This Act allows an authority nominated by the Chief Fire Officer (CFO) can, after giving three hours’ notice to the occupier/owner, enter and inspect a building or premises anytime between sunrise and sunset, "where inspection appears necessary for ascertaining the adequacy or contravention of fire prevention and fire safety measures".

A report of this will be submitted to the CFO.

If the CFO finds the condition of building to be dangerous to life or property, he ask the occupants to vacate from the building. If this is not complied with, the CFO can direct the jurisdictional police officer to remove such persons from the building.

In the event of non-compliance, the CFO may also issue a notice to the occupant/owner "to undertake measures for rectifying the said inadequacy within such a period as he may consider just…"

Read the complete Act here.

Even as a recommendation for a legislation has been made, Chengappa says that such policy matters will take time. He says the onus is not just on authorities but also on the public, to come forward and comply by the rules. "Why didn’t people object when they saw the emergency exits locked at Carlton? You can’t be ignorant", Chengappa says, matter-of-factly.

He also feels that instead of annual inspection by fire officials, a system of self-declaration should be brought in, for owners of high-rise buildings.

Self-declaration as an approach itself is now on test. Commissioner of Police Shankar Bidari issued order in March 2010 to all high-rise building owners to submit their plan sanction and fire safety compliance details by April 15th. How many citizens have abided by this and submitted their declarations to the nearest police station? Commissioner Bidari told Citizen Matters he would be able to give details about disclosures received within the next few days.

Too slow to act on violations

But looking at the history of how things turn out, it is unclear as to what the next course of action is likely to be.

Take the case of the fire that broke out on the 6th floor of the Bangalore Central mall in October last year. According to a report in the local daily newspaper DNA, this floor was said to have been illegally constructed in the mall, which the fire department highlighted in a letter to the BBMP. It has been more than six months and the BBMP is yet to respond as to how the deviation occurred in the building. On asking the BBMP Commissioner about the status of the case, his reply was, "I’ll check up. There is some litigation. They’ve built that floor later".

Citizen Matters also brought to Meena’s notice the case of incorrect plan sanctioning of a convention centre in Panduranganagar, off Bannerghatta Road. (Read the report here). Again, the Commissioner’s reply was, "I’m not aware of this. I’ll check up." The commissioner made no effort to attempt to get a quick response from his subordinate officials.

(Note: When reporters ask general questions about a malaise, officials usually ask the reporters to be specific and give examples. Give specific examples, this top official made no attempt to get a quick or even preliminary response from the subordinate concerned in the presence of the reporter.)

Citizens’ group pushes to keep issue alive

While the state is yet to piece together a plan of action, a group of citizens have come together to fight for justice with regard to the Carlton fire and also create awareness and education on fire safety. This citizen initiative called ‘Beyond Carlton’, consists of survivors and family members of the nine people who lost their lives during the Carlton fire. Their, admittedly tall, objective is to ensure that a tragedy like Carlton towers never occurs in the city again.

Members-Beyond Carlton

Members of ‘Beyond Carlton’. From left to right, Uday Vijayan, Shantha Kumar, Melissa Arulappan and Nitin Dubey. Pic: Vaishnavi Vittal

Members of ‘Beyond Carlton’ have met with officials of the KSFES and the police commissioner. In a memorandum submitted to Bidari, members of this group have requested the Commissioner to speed up the investigation process, provide adequate training to the police force in managing such disasters in the area of crowd and traffic management, and public awareness, among other things. On Bidari’s response to the memorandum, Uday Vijayan who lost his son Akhil to the Carlton tragedy, says, "He said things we wanted to hear".

‘Beyond Carlton’ members also say that there are discrepancies in the fire department’s report on the fire. Says Nitin Dubey, one of the survivors, "Fire department denies their personnel held a bed sheet and asked people to jump. They say seven people jumped before the fire people reached the spot, but that’s not true". Dubey says he saw both fire personnel and citizens holding bed spreads with their finger tips and asking people stuck inside the building to jump. "Who told them to hold it? How did the police allow this?", he asks pointedly.

What is frustrating this group is that no government body has taken full accountability for the fire incident. The fire department’s Chengappa says, as noted earlier, that none of the occupants of Carlton towers bothered to complain about locked emergency exits much before the tragedy occurred. "Each one is saying their hands are tied. So that’s the problem", says Melissa Arulappan, another member of ‘Beyond Carlton’. Shantha Kumar, 38, who lost his wife Benzy Kumari in the Carlton fire, says, "All departments are guilty. Everyone has neglected. That’s why things are going slow. Nowadays I see fire department doing drills. What were they doing before this?"

As he fights to hold back tears, Kumar says that they only hope to keep this topic alive. "We have to set an example that these things should not happen", he says, suggesting that contact centres be set up to complain of violations.

Beyond Carlton members are next looking to meet the BBMP Commissioner and the Chief Minister. They are also planning to hold workshops on fire safety awareness. Dubey and Melissa say that they are also planning to organise mock fire drills in their respective residential apartment complexes.

Chengappa of the KSFES says the number of people who attend their awareness programmes has now increased. The fire department recently held demonstrations and lectures during Fire Safety Week (between April 14th and 20th) across the city. On invitation and requests, they also hold demonstrations and mock drills for schools, industries, clubs and NGOs. Chengappa says that the requests for mock drills have shot up. "It’s not just the police, fire department or BBMP. Everyone has to perform their duty", he says.

About Vaishnavi Vittal 139 Articles
Vaishnavi Vittal is a Bangalore-based journalist.

4 Comments

  1. Brilliant article. But sad to hear about such irresponsible act by the officials. But I guess, that is the way they are. No hopes for innocent people.

  2. Meena to Bidari; Bidari to Meena; Meena to Chengappa; Chengappa to Sandhu; Sandhu to Government. God, what a bunch of jokers we have when precious live have been lost and livelihoods ruined. In any other civilized country, these clowns would be behind bars for good. Added to this circus, we’ve 198 new ‘space-cadets’ added to the mix! Only brave reporters from CM can keep these clowns on their toes.

  3. Good investigative journalism.

    It is heartening to see the “Beyond Carlton” citizens group staying on top of the issue. Unless we take responsible action things won’t change or improve.

    It is a puzzle that the Commissioner is not more proactive in taking needed steps. Does he lack resources or does he not deploy available resources efficiently? Whatever the reason innocent people bear teh burden and suffer.

    CM deserves praise for highlighting the matter in such forceful language.

  4. Great expose of the totally callous and irresponsible attitude of these officials, especially the BBMP Commissioner. Is there no mechanism for citizens to go to the High Court so that these callous officials are held responsible and forced to come up with fire-safety norms?

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