The Kamala Mills fire: a look at how the events unfolded

Fire alarm: Understanding Mumbai's recent fire tragedies

On December 28, a city in a holiday mood awoke to grim news: 14 people had died and over 20 were injured in a fire in a south Mumbai entertainment district, Kamala Mills, which a large chunk of more affluent Mumbaikars have visited at some point. The blaze that engulfed two upmarket rooftop eateries left patrons scampering for narrow, ill-marked exits, or risking the elevator. Many were asphyxiated, huddled inside a toilet.

The Kamala Mills fire perhaps shocked more people because its victims were mainly from a relatively cocooned segment of the population. But it was not an isolated incident.

In recent months, flames engulfed shanties in Behrampada during a municipal demolition drive (no deaths were reported, but a firefighter was injured), and an inferno in a farsan shop in Khairani Road killed 12 workers sleeping in the premises and injured one. After the Kamala Mills tragedy, a fire in an apartment in Marol killed an eight-year boy, his 14-year-old sister, and two adults, as the childrens’ father and neighbours watched helplessly and heard their terrified screams. On Saturday, a fire in Cinevista Studio, Kanjurmarg, killed one person.

According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) statistics, accidental deaths due to fire accidents in Mumbai in 2015 were 68. (The Maharashtra figure for the same year: 1,023. NCRB numbers for 2001–2014 show close to 3 lakh deaths across the country due to fires, an average of 59 a day.)

Apathy and indifference

Such tragedies are the result of “a crumbling metropolis” where planning is haphazard and safety norms brazenly flouted, says Pankaj Joshi, Executive Director of the Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI). “Lower Parel has seen immense development in recent years. Historically, mills were built close to water bodies, which helped in case of fires; but today, we have built over water bodies.” The area has residential structures next to commercial establishments. “The different types of users in a small pocket pose a challenge to fire safety.”

There are regulations are in place. The National Building Code (NBC), 2016, guidelines lists every detail when it comes to construction, including fire safety. The code lists requirements for different users (residential and commercial buildings, for instance), like the number of exits, placement of extinguishers, a dedicated water supply, fire-retardant building materials, and so on.

But implementation is often substandard. “[The NBC] is just that: a guideline, not a mandatory rule of law,” says Mr. Joshi. When it comes to mixed users in a single unit, the more stringent safety code must be followed, he says. “If there is a commercial kitchen on one floor, the commercial kitchen safety code must be applied across the structure.”

Also, while codes may be followed during construction, there is often no follow-up. Anil Kumar (name changed on request), a member of the board of Practicing Engineers Architects and Town Planners (PEATA) India, says apathy is the real culprit. For instance, a No-Objection Certificate (NOC) is required from the Chief Fire officer (CFO) before a new structure can be occupied. The NOC comes only after checking that access to refuge areas (designated spots where occupants must gather to facilitate rescue) is unhindered and that all the requirements of the Maharashtra Fire Prevention Act and the Life Safety Measures Act are adhered to. “But the rules are flouted after people shift in, and routine checks are rare.” For examples, he says, residents often put shoe-racks and cupboards on common stairways, top-floor residents lock terraces marked as refuge areas, and cars are parked in slots required to be kept free for easy access of rescue vehicles.

Sunil Sheth (name changed on request), a senior official with the Mumbai Fire Brigade, also cites laxity from citizens. “We should all take ownership of our surroundings,” he says, “whether it is our residential buildings or establishments we frequent.” D.S. Salunkhe, District Deputy Registrar, Co-op Housing Societies, Mumbai, says, “Societies are duty-bound when it comes to regular inspection of safety measures.” He says that there are some things all citizens must be watchful about. For instance, in some cases, where the conveyance deed is not effected, the terrace, which may be marked as a refuge area, is in the builder’s possession, illegally. Also, commercial users who are co-members in residential premises must be watched with utmost care to prevent them from usurping common areas. “An alert managing committee can go a long way in preventing hazards.”

As Indian cities increasingly grow vertically, it’s important to remember that fires in high-rises are best fought from within. Mr. Joshi says, “Given the space crunch in Mumbai, often the turntable ladders of fire vehicles cannot be adequately manoeuvred. In such cases, fire engines are just aids; the real fire fighters are the residents.” He says it’s essential to attend fire drills and insist on periodic safety checks of our buildings. “Even though it’s not mandatory in high-rises in Mumbai, residents can go a step further, and invest in fire curtains and smoke barriers that block the spread of flames and smog.”

Grim lessons

Uday Vijayan lost his 23-year-old son, Akhil, in the Carlton Towers fire, Bengaluru, in February 2010. Along with other bereaved families, he started Beyond Carlton, a charitable trust that spreads awareness on fire safety. Mr. Vijayan says, “Like most people, I thought this was an incident that happens to others.” As the families struggled with their loss, they knew creating awareness was crucial, and they found that many people they knew didn’t even know the 101 is the fire emergency number across the country. Beyond Carlton started campaigns to spread awareness on 101, and tied up with several radio channels, where they got public figures to urge listeners to become more conscious of fire safety.

Mr. Vijayan agrees with Mr. Kumar on the apathy most of us show. To counter this, Beyond Carlton engages with area locality management bodies and resident associations, and holds talks on fire safety. He says, “We make people aware that merely having sprinklers isn’t enough: they should be checked periodically. Investing in fire hydrants is a must, as is being trained in using them.” While having a fire refuge area is mandatory, it’s just as important to check that the doors to fire exits actually open, and that such areas are not encroached upon. In Carlton Towers, the fire exit doors were locked, and many lost their lives as they jumped out of the high-rise to escape the flames.

Mr. Joshi cites the fire in the Uphaar cinema, Delhi, in 1997 — one of the worst in India in recent memory, where 59 died and over 100 were injured in the fire and the ensuing stampede — and reminds us that multiplexes in cities pack in huge numbers of people. “Just think about the sheer number of people that would rush out of the different screening halls, scampering for the same exit.”

Mr. Kumar points to other overlooked hazards. “The Development Control Regulations, Mumbai, as also the Maharashtra Regional Town Planning Act (MRTP), do not regulate grills in balconies and around windows. In Mumbai apartments, we tend to box ourselves in with iron grills. Ironically, we do this for our safety, but these grills become threats as they don’t allow you to escape.” Air-conditioning units are equally hazardous, he says. “There are no rules when it comes to their positioning.” People tend to fit A/Cs into tiny corners, and sometimes ventilation systems overlap with toilet ducts, increasing the risk of fire. “Ideally, these areas should be demarcated when planning the structure.”

Referring to the Kamala Mills fire report — which says the fire began when embers of charcoal, used in hookahs, came in contact with curtains — Mr. Kumar says that responsibility lies with interior designers too. “Designing is a complex job; it is a science, and needs the right kind of education. Simply having good taste cannot make you a designer. One has to realise that aesthetics cannot trump safety.”

The bamboo-and-tarpaulin structure which contributed to the Kamala Mills inferno, Mr. Joshi says, highlights the danger these ‘monsoon sheds’ pose. Such sheds, on rooftops or skirting commercial establishments on ground floors, are meant to help keep patrons and goods dry during the rains, or to provide protection from leaky roofs, and limited permissions are granted for this purpose. Often, these stay up beyond the period for which permission is granted, and they are misused in other ways too: owners of commercial establishments often treat the areas they enclose or cover as their personal property, using them to store goods, put out tables (in the case of eateries), and even to park cars, in these common or refuge areas.

Another important but overlooked issue relates to NOCs from the fire department. Mr. Kumar of PEATA says, “When it comes to granting the NOCs, it is unfair to expect that the Chief Fire Officer, who is essentially a fire fighter, be able to grasp the complexities of engineering and civil works. Ideally this should fall under a specialised body.”

Referring to the Kamala Mills Fire probe, where fire exits were reportedly blocked, Mr. Sheth the fire officer says, “When we walk into restaurants, we must look around and check for fire exits, so we know exactly what to do in an emergency.” But he admits, too, that the system is flawed. In the case of illegal construction or alterations that poses a fire threat — like an unauthorised flammable shed — when the Fire Department receives a complaint, they prepare a report and pass it on to the Building and Factories Department for further action. Mr. Sheth says, “To avoid such delays, we are working on setting up Fire Safety Compliance Cells in all fire-stations across the city. These units will conduct regular inspections, and will ensure seamless coordination between departments.” Such a cell brings with it its own set of challenges. “At the moment, [the Fire department] is understaffed, So this is an added duty for fire fighters. We are working towards setting up the cell in such a way that the officers on the cell work exclusively on preventative measures and conducting safety checks.”

Citizens must help

Unless citizens take it upon themselves to be more vigilant, there are more tragedies like the one in Kamala Mills waiting to happen.

Mumbai could take a leaf out of Beyond Carlton’s book.

The trust filed a public interest litigation, supported by the Namma Bengaluru Foundation, empowering the Karnataka Fire Department. Prior to the PIL, the Fire Department only came into the picture during firefighting; they were not responsible for conducting fire audits or checks. The PIL gave them these powers and duties. And since then, Beyond Carlton has been pressurising them when it comes to regular checks. As a result of the PIL, it also became mandatory for high-rises (buildings over 15m) in Karnataka to obtain NOCs from the Fire department every two years.

Mr. Vijayan hopes that when the pain heals, the families and friends of the victims of the Kamala Mills tragedy will also work towards the cause. “Beyond Carlton will be more than happy to work with them,” he says. “whether it is to share in their grief, or help in setting up a similar initiative in Mumbai.”

Fire safety starts with you

Essential precautions.

Ensure all exits are marked clearly.

Ensure all refuge areas are accessible and unlocked.

Ensure stairways are clear.

Do not allow vehicles to park in areas demarcated for rescue vehicles or blocking access for rescue vehicles.

Ensure window grills can be opened.

Invest in fire-fighting equipment, and learn how to use it.

Insist on fire drills.

Take action against unauthorised sheds. If your building society does not act, report it to the Fire Department and municipal authorities.

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Printable version | Apr 16, 2021 10:34:51 PM |

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