Fire accidents happen with dismaying regularity in buildings in Indian cities causing heavy casualties. Nine people were killed and 68 injured in Bangalore last month when a fire broke out in a commercial building. This week, in a worse accident at Kolkata's Stephen Court building, 34 lives were lost. Authorities are still looking for some more people who are missing. Some of the bodies were so charred that family members were unable to recognise them and sought the help of DNA examination to ascertain identity. As in most previous accidents, precious lives would have been saved had fire safety norms and building rules been followed. The fifth and sixth floors, which were gutted, have been found to be unauthorised constructions, with the fire safety rules flouted with impunity. Much of the Bangalore tragedy could have been averted had the corridors leading to staircases not been encroached upon, had fire exits been kept open, unsafe old electrical cables replaced, and the hoardings removed. What is clear is that lessons have not been learnt from the heart-breaking calamities of Kumbakonam (2004), where more than 90 children were burnt to death, and Uphaar Cinema, Delhi (1997), where 59 people lost their lives.
There is little point in the State government rushing to adopt a new set of fire safety regulations, of which there is no dearth. The National Building Code (NBC), published in 1970 and last updated in 2005, prescribes the minimum fire safety and rescue measures to be provided in buildings. In addition, cities have their own rules for multi-storey structures and procedures for periodical checking of fire safety systems. What is missing is a real and measurable improvement in the enforcement mechanisms. Simultaneously, transparency in giving building permissions must be enhanced and public access to building safety data, a practice common in other cities of the world, made easier. Governments must also desist from protecting unscrupulous owners and builders who violate norms. Ordinances such as the ones passed in Delhi and Chennai, which protect unauthorised constructions including those flouting fire safety norms, must be discouraged. The tragedy at Stephen Court, a 150-year-old heritage structure, reminds us that many such old buildings made of combustible materials and lacking fire exits need urgent retrofitting. Foreseeing this, the NBC has classified heritage buildings as a special category and stipulated separate norms. The old and the new structures must comply with the mandated rules. The duty of the state is to ensure enforcement and compliance.