Kolkata has been through three trials by fire over the past three years, and its poor showing in each of these is evident from the fact that the death toll from the three incidents adds up to more than 150.
Forty-three people who perished on the upper floors of a building in the Park Street area could not prevent the open flouting of fire safety norms at the AMRI Hospitals, Dhakuria, where more than 90 suffocated to death. The magnitude of the two tragedies could not prevent a third — the recent blaze at the Surya Sen Market — in which 21 persons who used to sleep on the premises could not escape the flames.
“There are two main reasons for the death toll being so high in these incidents as well as other fires — the storage of inflammable materials in large quantities and the fact that escape routes were blocked, closed or locked,” says Sutapa Das, assistant professor, Department of Architecture and Infrastructure at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.
The rhetoric of lessons being learnt and the Trinamool Congress government’s refrain of “the 34 years of Left rule” cannot gloss over the fact that there are deep-rooted systemic problems in the fire protection system that is working with a little over 50 per cent of its sanctioned strength and inadequate equipment.
In a moment of candour, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee admitted that the safety measures recommended for all hospitals and marketplaces in the aftermath of the fire at AMRI Hospitals were not implemented. (“If you are able to ensure fire-fighting arrangements [at city markets] in the next 15 days, then well and good. Those unable to do so will have to face the consequences,” she said on Saturday).
According to Fire and Emergency Services Minister Javed Khan, when he took over at the department there was a “42 per cent shortage of manpower” — a situation he has not been able to address yet. There is a plan to recruit 1,500 “auxiliary fire fighters,” but even if it is implemented, a 20 per cent shortage will remain.
The chronic manpower shortage is coupled with inadequate infrastructure. Mr. Khan says he has planned a Rs. 50-crore spend in the upcoming budget for the purchase of equipment, including sky-lifts, fire tenders — including smaller ones that will find it easier to navigate through narrow lanes in the congested areas of the city — besides cranes and portable pumps.
But mere purchase of equipment does not guarantee its use. Scenes of some victims of the Park Street fire leaping to death even as firemen could not use jumping cushions available with them are singed in public memory. Inefficiency repeated itself at the Surya Sen Market fire when some of the survivors jumped, again without the aid of the cushions.
To prevent the recurrence of such incidents, Mr. Khan says, the dealers supplying the equipment will be asked to work with the firemen in the fire stations for some time to demonstrate their use. It remains to be seen whether the sophisticated equipment acquired will actually be used by firemen.
Apart from manpower shortages and inadequate training, firemen have to contend with the “unplanned” nature of the city. Not only do the congested streets and narrow alleyways of the older areas pose a challenge, the rampant violations of construction guidelines in modern high-rises also add to the problems of access.
Both the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) guidebook and the National Building Code, 2005, specify that buildings of a certain height must leave sufficient space on all sides of the building to allow fire tenders room to manoeuvre. But these norms are flouted with impunity and later the buildings are regularised by paying fines, according to Professor Das. The fact that Ms. Banerjee expressed fears that “a fire may break out any day at Writers Buildings [the Secretariat]” is a telling comment on the vulnerability of buildings in the city . Mr. Khan admits his Department faces a tough challenge and the number of fires is on the rise.
“Why are fire incidents on the rise? Because the consumption of energy has gone up manifold and as the consumption of energy has increased, the quality of materials used for transmitting electricity has declined,” Mr. Khan argues, pointing to copper wires being replaced by aluminium ones.
Quoting a 2012 report of the National Safety Council of India, Professor Das says more than 40 per cent of fires are caused by faulty electrical lines. “It is not only the problem of lack of technology or the paucity of resources. The government cannot enforce fire safety measures. What is lacking is the attitude of the people to understand that fire hazards result in loss of life and property and take steps to remedy it.”
Basanti Colony slum in Kolkata has been razed to the ground on two occasions by fires that broke out three years apart. The story repeats itself in other slums. Director-General of Fire Services Gopal Bhattacharya says that apart from congestion and the highly inflammable construction material used in shanties, the increasing use of LPG, often without precautions, has led to the rise in the number of fires. Settlements housing rag-pickers are the most vulnerable. The residents live surrounded by scrap they collect — polythene, newspaper, Styrofoam and other plastic goods — and they cook their meals in the midst of these.