Public memory is short, very short, says Uday Vijayan, who started Beyond Carlton, months after he lost his 23-year-old son, three years ago the day, to the horrific fire at Carlton Towers.
The father, who has since channelised his insurmountable grief to advocacy and activism on fire safety recalls how when he would approach decision makers or government officials, they would need to be briefed at least a dozen times on the tragedy that claimed no less than nine lives.
“At first it would hurt, and we’d get angry, but then that’s the nature of things. So, part of our struggle is to keep this issue alive, to build public opinion and awareness, and to ensure that some, at least some, good comes out of this whole thing,” says the 55-year-old management executive, who spends his spare time delivering talks on fire safety, working with corporate firms and apartment complexes, and finding new ways to educate people in the issue.
Any number of violations
Carlton Towers, he recalls, was “a cage” and similar violations — where fire exits are locked, blocked or not provided for — exist everywhere. He observes that the task at hand is “huge, like a marathon”. The key to the change, however, is two-pronged: stricter government control and monitoring and more awareness among citizens.
Months after the incident, the group filed a public interest litigation plea in the Karnataka High Court, which led to a government notification mandating a fire audit of buildings across the city. It also states that if buildings don’t make provisions for fire security measures, the government can simply turn off water and electricity supply. The audit is currently under progress, but Mr. Vijayan points out that there are several bureaucratic hurdles. “We’ve been able to make some fruitful intervention, and the notification is significant. But our biggest problem or frustration is the lack of intervention. When will that change?” he asks.
‘What are we doing?’
But, blaming the government isn’t enough, he adds, after a pause. “What are citizens like you and me doing? Until this happened to my son, I was least bothered about fire safety. If citizens can sit back and think about the impact of a fire, and then take the issue of safety into their own hands, then that would be a start. If it doesn’t save their own life, it may save someone else’s, or their son’s, someday.”
Personally, Mr. Vijayan says he is happy he has been able to do something about the appalling state of fire safety in the city.
“I know this will never bring my son back. The option, I had back then was to either hide at home, or go out and do something about it.”
Initially, many of the grieving families were associated with the initiative. Along the way, many of them moved on, but many others — citizens and non-governmental organisations and corporate firms — joined in. These citizens have been our greatest strength all along, he says. Ït’s been an uphill task, and the way ahead is nothing short of a marathon,” Mr. Vijayan says.