Rajkot gaming arcade fire: a tragedy foretold

The blaze that gutted a multi-level recreation centre, killing 27 people, is the latest in a string of accidents in Gujarat over the past few years due to a lack of stringent enforcement of building rules and safety norms. The mishaps highlight laxity of officials and alleged graft in the State’s local bodies.

Updated - June 07, 2024 09:53 am IST

Published - June 06, 2024 11:48 pm IST

Earthmovers dismantle the debris after a blaze at TRP Game Zone at Rajkot, Gujarat, on May 26, 2024.

Earthmovers dismantle the debris after a blaze at TRP Game Zone at Rajkot, Gujarat, on May 26, 2024. | Photo Credit: VIJAY SONEJI

“I have nothing to lose now. Those responsible for the tragedy must get capital punishment. Till they are sentenced to death, no one should get bail,” said Pradipsinh Chauhan, who lost his son, Rajbha, 12, and four relatives, including his brother Virendrasinh Jadeja, 42, in a massive fire that gutted TRP Game Zone, an indoor gaming centre in Gujarat’s Rajkot on May 25.

The outing on a Saturday had turned tragic for several families as 27 people were charred to death at the gaming zone that operated without valid licences and a no-objection certificate from the local civic body’s fire department.

Recounting the tragedy, Jadeja’s daughter Devikaba said she was sitting with her family members at a restaurant near the multi-level gaming arcade around 5.30 p.m., when they heard a loud blast and saw smoke billowing from the dome of the recreation centre.

“My father and maternal uncle rushed in as my brother Dharamraj, 15, and some relatives were playing on a trampoline on the upper floor of the game zone. Soon, a few more blasts occurred, and nobody could come out. My father, brother, and three relatives died, and I couldn’t even see their faces,” said Devikaba.

The State government established the identity of 27 victims through DNA tests of the charred bodies and handed them over to their kin. According to sources, over 150 people were inside the arcade when the fire broke out. On the weekend, the owners had reduced the entry fee to ₹99 per person, attracting more people from Rajkot and its neighbouring areas.

Firefighters carry out cooling operations and search for survivors at TRP Game Zone at Rajkot, Gujarat, on May 26, 2024.

Firefighters carry out cooling operations and search for survivors at TRP Game Zone at Rajkot, Gujarat, on May 26, 2024. | Photo Credit: VIJAY SONEJI

Safety violations

Witnesses and relatives of the victims said there were no firefighting equipment and emergency exits, raising serious questions about the role of local authorities who allowed the gaming zone to function without conducting any checks. Inflammable material, including diesel to run generators and gas cylinders for the various rides, were reportedly present on the premises.

According to the FIR, no proper fire safety mechanism was in place in the two-storey building, which was a 50-metre-wide and 60-metre-long temporary steel structure with tin roofs spread across a 2,000 square metre plot. It added that there were many AC units and compressors installed on the walls, and electrical wiring at the amusement park.

“The gaming zone never applied for the fire NOC,” submitted the Gujarat government before the High Court, which initiated a public interest litigation plea after taking suo motu cognisance of the incident. The court termed it a “man-made disaster” and asked the government as well as the Rajkot, Surat, and Ahmedabad municipalities to submit a report on the functioning of gaming centres in these cities.

The government said its investigation found “gross negligence” on the part of the Rajkot Municipal Corporation (RMC) and other departments that failed to carry out inspections and allowed the gaming zone to operate without necessary approvals. It then swung into action, shunting out RMC Commissioner Anand Patel, Police Commissioner Raju Bhargava, and two more IPS officers. Two deputy executive engineers from the Roads and Buildings Department, an assistant engineer in the Rajkot Municipal Corporation’s town planning department, the city’s chief fire officer and his deputy, and two police inspectors were suspended.

The government also constituted a five-member special investigation team (SIT) headed by Additional Director General of Police Subhash Trivedi to probe the case. 

State Director General of Police Vikas Sahay said on May 30 that four government officials, including a town planning officer, were arrested in connection with the fire.

The SIT said in its preliminary report that the operators of the TRP Game Zone carried out welding works for the construction of the proposed “snow park” at the site despite knowing that the construction materials were highly inflammable. It also said the RMC’s town planning and fire departments were “directly connected” to the incident. The police have so far named 11 persons as accused in the case, including six partners of the gaming zone, and arrested nine while an accused, Prakash Hiran, was found dead in the same fire.

Rescuers look for missing children and teachers after a boat capsized in Harni Lake in Vadodara, on January 18, 2024.

Rescuers look for missing children and teachers after a boat capsized in Harni Lake in Vadodara, on January 18, 2024. | Photo Credit: AP

Recent accidents

The Rajkot blaze is the latest in a string of tragedies in Gujarat over the past few years  due to alleged negligence by civic bodies and due to a lack of stringent enforcement of building rules and safety norms.

In May 2019, 24 people died in a fire at a tuition centre on the top floor of a shopping complex in Surat. The building did not have a fire safety system and the top floor was built illegally. The Surat Municipal Corporation failed to inspect whether the centre had a fire safety system or emergency exits.

Probes going nowhere

In November 2022, 140 people were killed after a bridge that had just opened after renovation collapsed in Morbi town. The local civic body had awarded the contract to Oreva, a company known for making electrical appliances, which failed to obtain a fitness certificate before opening the bridge for tourists.

In January this year, a school picnic turned into a tragedy when 12 students and two teachers died after a boat overturned in a lake in Vadodara. The local civic body had given a private firm the contract to maintain the lake and run boat rides. A probe found out that the boat operators didn’t have professional training, the boat with a capacity of 14 passengers was overloaded, and the 31 occupants were not given life jackets.

Though separate SITs were formed to probe all three incidents, the investigations ran out of steam after a few months.

Picture placards of some of the Morbi tragedy victims seen placed at the western banks of Machchhu river near the bridge collapse site as a memorial tribute in Morbi, Gujarat on November 10, 2022. 

Picture placards of some of the Morbi tragedy victims seen placed at the western banks of Machchhu river near the bridge collapse site as a memorial tribute in Morbi, Gujarat on November 10, 2022.  | Photo Credit: VIJAY SONEJI

The Rajkot blaze triggered public outrage and brought allegations of corruption in civic bodies to the fore. A retired IAS officer attributed the failure of governance in local bodies to a nexus involving politicians, municipal officials, builders, and contractors.

“In Gujarat, urban local bodies like municipal corporations and municipalities are the most corrupt government entities. One cannot get even a basic task done without giving a bribe,” the former civil servant said. He added that in all eight municipal corporations and over 150 municipalities in the State, fire service officers and technical staff who approve building plans don’t act till they get their share of the pie.

“All eight municipal corporations and nearly 95% of the municipalities are ruled by the BJP. Most of the builders and contractors are connected to the party. Even Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel used to be a builder. We have such tragedies because of neck-deep corruption in civic bodies,” said Leader of the Opposition Amit Chavda.

Slamming authorities for “hiding the number of people” who died in the blaze, senior BJP leader and Rajya Sabha member Ram Mokariya stated before mediapersons that he had paid a bribe of ₹70,000 to obtain an NOC for a project from the RMC’s fire department. He said he was sharing his “personal experience to highlight widespread corruption” in Rajkot.

“Everyone knows that corruption is everywhere. I have been exposing corrupt officials for a long time. In the past, I had openly said that Rajkot’s town planning officer had been indulging in corruption for the last 10 years,” he said.

This is not a one-off incident, said State Congress chief Shaktisinh Gohil. “In November 2020, five persons were killed in a fire in a Rajkot hospital, which operated without a fire safety system. Eight persons died in a hospital in Ahmedabad due to a fire in August 2020. In May 2021, 16 people died in a hospital fire in Bharuch. All three incidents occurred during the pandemic. The government failed to learn any lessons and enforce fire safety norms,” he said.

Since 2014, when former Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, the Urban Development Department has been directly handled by the Chief Minister: Anandiben Patel (2014-2016), Vijay Rupani (2016-2021), and Mr. Patel since 2021. However, the move hasn’t helped improve urban governance and stringent law enforcement.

“It is corruption, nothing else. Officials will overlook even if you build a complex on the road blocking traffic if you bribe them,” said a BJP functionary in Rajkot, expressing concerns about how government institutions indulge in malpractices at the cost of public safety.

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