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Updated: July 28, 2012 11:04 IST

Tinderbox city

Rahi Gaikwad
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Safety is costly: Nariman Point in Mumbai. Photo: Paul Noronha
The Hindu
Safety is costly: Nariman Point in Mumbai. Photo: Paul Noronha

Despite the recent Mantralaya blaze and stringent guidelines, there are impediments to fire safety in Mumbai buildings

When the Maharashtra government’s seat of power caught fire, it threw the spotlight on fire safety measures in Mumbai— a city where space is a luxury. N.K. Sharma, a developer, wants to construct a building on a 22 square metre plot, while the fire department recommends an open space measuring 12 square metres. “How can you have a building on 10 square metres?” he said, but agreed that ignoring fire safety was a “life risk.”Since January, the Mumbai Fire Department inspected around 300 high-rise buildings, which included residential towers, commercial establishments, malls and multiplexes and 67 hospitals. Around 200 notices were sent to various buildings for compliance. The Fire Department said around a hundred notices have been complied with. “We give a deadline of 15 days to correct a minor deficiency and three months to correct a major deficiency, failing which a proposal is sent to the legal department for action under the Fire Act,” a Fire Brigade official told The Hindu.

However, no such notice was sent to Mantralaya. “There was an audit in 2008; after that we thought since a fire officer was in-charge of the building, the compliance would be done, but that did not happen,” a fire official remarked. “It is the responsibility of the builder to set up the fire-fighting systems, but later the society has to maintain it. When we issue a no-objection certificate, we check for in-built fire fighting system, water tanks, open spaces as rescue areas, electric cabling, wet and dry risers, fire extinguishers and so on. But, 90 per cent of societies don’t pay attention to the maintenance of these systems. These days, the slum rehabilitation buildings are also high-rises. Do you think the poor from the slum are going to have the funds to maintain the fire safety equipment and systems?” the official said. “People cut costs and after a building is allowed to be occupied, they neglect the fire equipment.” The UDD has directed all the urban local bodies to undertake a fire audit of all the government buildings within one month and all public building within three months. Architect Hafeez Contractor highlighted an impediment in the building bye-laws with respect to interiors. The Mantralaya blaze spread rapidly because of the huge amount of inflammable material and the wooden partitions that separated office areas. “All municipal buildings have wooden partitions. The bye-laws do not allow brick partitions. Wooden partition has taken over the entire interior designing industry as cancer,” Mr. Contractor told The Hindu. In the absence of definite and clear steps, the procedure to get interiors approved entails a lot of arbitrariness.

Hospitals, malls and newly-constructed buildings are under the scanner on a priority basis. The central air-conditioning in modern buildings is posing a new challenge to fire authorities. “Centrally air-conditioned buildings are more vulnerable as the smoke does not escape. Smoke management is a major challenge for building planners,” M.V. Deshmukh, director of Maharashtra Fire Services said.

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