On June 21 last year, five persons were killed, 16 injured and thousands of sensitive government documents lost in a blazing fire that gutted three top floors of Mantralaya, the Maharashtra government’s seat of power.
Nearly 6,000 government employees and senior officials had a tryst with death in the inferno that nearly succeeded in razing the seven-storey building.
While the fire exposed glaring lapses in the emergency response apparatus, the State government seems not to have learnt any lesson. “The defective detection and fire-fighting equipment installed throughout the building has yet to undergo a radical overhaul,” said a senior official of the Fire Department, speaking to The Hindu on condition of anonymity.
In an audit conducted in 2007, the Fire Department faulted the Public Works Department (PWD) by noting that even the most rudimentary fire-fighting equipment in Mantralaya, such as fire hydrants hose-reels, were defective.
The building’s fire-fighting system was over a decade old, and a proposal to supplant this old system with a modern, wireless digital fire detection-cum-prevention system that has centralised controls had been put on the backburner for more than a year now.
Major suggestion ignored
Soon after the fire, the PWD, headed by Nationalist Congress Party leader Chhagan Bhujbal, engaged in a game of buck-passing on the question of who was responsible for the maintenance of the six-decades-old building. Chief among issues of non-compliance were suggestions that the PWD had not acted on the recommendations of the fire-safety audit report of 2008 conducted by the Mumbai Fire Department.
While Mr. Bhujbal at the time stressed that the PWD had followed 31 of the 32 recommendations suggested in the report, more than eight months after the accident, Fire Department authorities said the Department was yet to implement the fire safety measures suggested by the fire brigade and submit a report.
According to Chief Fire Officer Suhas Joshi, his Department was yet to receive any compliance report on the safety measures taken at Mantralaya.
PWD ‘at fault’
While the Fire Department is already taking to task some high-rises in the city for not following fire safety measures, as mandated under the Fire Safety Act, 2006, senior authorities say it is the PWD that is not keen on following the law.
Moreover, fire officials complained that there was no let-up in unauthorised parking inside Mantralaya.
One of the reasons for not checking the June 21 fire was that the fire brigade failed to adhere to Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) and appear on time as the approach route was blocked by cars from the retinue of ministers.
“We talk about Quick Response Time (QRT) of the fire teams...but if fewer cars had been parked on the approach route on June 21, the fire rescue teams could have operated swiftly and reduce the damage. Perhaps, more lives might have been saved as well,” said another Fire Department official.
On Saturday, Mantralaya witnessed another blaze, in yet another warning for the future.