Violators must pay: on fire tragedies

The loss of at least 14 lives in the fire in a Mumbai rooftop restaurant on Thursday night must compel a relentless campaign for safety in buildings. Earlier this week, in another tragedy in the city, at least 12 migrant labourers were killed in a fire in an industrial area. This is a catastrophe that can befall anyone, which is why the fires in the upmarket building in the Kamala Mills compound and the snacks shop in Saki Naka in India’s financial capital need to become examples: of fixing of accountability of owners, managers and official agencies; punishment for those guilty of breaking rules; exemplary compensation for families of the dead and for the injured; and zero-tolerance enforcement of safety requirements. It should sting the conscience of governments that they learnt nothing from the Uphaar cinema hall fire in New Delhi in 1997 that killed 59 people. In that episode, the exits had been blocked by unauthorised seating. An impartial inquiry is needed to determine what building and other rules were violated in Mumbai, and to identify the officials who allowed them. It would be wrong to categorise deliberate acts as instances of mere negligence. Those responsible must be prosecuted without leniency.


Assessing a fire professionally involves an inquiry that focusses on established construction codes: whether the possibility of igniting it was actively reduced, whether provision was made for controlling the spread of fire and smoke, whether the design enabled occupant escape and firefighter access, and whether the structure was built to avoid collapse. The inquiry ordered by the Maharashtra government must produce a public report on all these parameters. It must be followed up with meticulous prosecution. Given how the Uphaar case played out, it is important to see that the guilty do not use every device available to prolong the judicial process. It would ill-serve the cause of justice to the victims if the judiciary takes a lenient view of such a crime. The urgent need is to make examples of violators, invoking the most stringent provisions. Long as it has been, the struggle waged by the families of Uphaar victims who came together to form an association is in itself a commendable effort that has exposed the indifference of the executive. The absence of a strong law of torts accompanied by a slow criminal justice process and rampant bureaucratic and political corruption have contributed to the brazen violation of building norms and a system of special schemes to regularise such death traps for a fee. It is wrong for courts to take a benign approach to such blatant, complicit measures. On the other hand, they should be concerned that their orders issued to ensure public safety — road safety is one example — remain mostly on paper. It should worry us that the lives of Indians seem to be of little value.

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Printable version | Sep 24, 2021 5:37:29 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/violators-must-pay/article22328094.ece

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