The horrific fire accident on September 12 in Secunderabad, Telangana, in which eight guests of a hotel were asphyxiated, was just one among several occasions when debate on illegal structures gets stoked, only to die away eventually in the humdrum of urban life.
Leaders, right from the mayor of the city up to the Prime Minister of the country, expressed sorrow over the mishap. For the common public, the accident and the whole line-up of regret to ex-gratia, was just a deja vu from six months ago, when 12 persons, all of them daily wage labourers from Bihar, died in a fire accident at Bhoiguda, another part of Secunderabad.
In the recent incident, fire erupted in the basement of the structure, and the plumes of smoke enveloped the hotel in the upper floors, choking the guests. The basement was unauthorised, as also the top floor of the building, both of which represented gross deviations from the plan sanctioned by the civic body.
A report by the Regional Fire Officer pointed out several irregularities, including absence of set-back spaces and escape routes, defunct fire-fighting equipment, spiral staircase around the elevator shaft, basement utilised illegally for commercial purposes, and absence of smoke management and emergency lighting. The building has been thriving for the past 8-9 years, under the protection offered by the Building Regularisation Scheme (BRS), 2015.
Since 1998, the era of the joint State of Andhra Pradesh, the BRS has become a hope for deviant builders to circumvent the norms, and a pretext for successive governments to make money under the justification of ‘fait accompli’. The standard defence had been that the builder would go scot-free in case of any action, while the innocent occupants of the building would have to suffer for no fault of theirs.
This went on till 2016, when the BRS announced by the Telangana State government the previous year was challenged in the High Court. The process then came to an abrupt halt, not before 1.13 lakh property owners submitted their applications seeking regularisation. The owner of the ill-fated building at Secunderabad where the fire occurred, was one of the applicants to the scheme. Though the process has been since stalled, the authorities have not taken any action against the deviations, except charging the owners double the normal amount of property tax and power bills.
Seeking safety clearances
Applicability of fire safety norms is another gap through which several builders escape. As per the Telangana Fire Services Act, 1999, only residential buildings above 18 metres’ height and commercial buildings above 15 metres’ height are obligated to seek fire safety clearances. Almost all commercial establishments where fire mishaps took place in recent past did not fall into the category. The Secunderabad building, inclusive of all deviations, was one such. It was never inspected by the fire services until the accident.
Amendment to the law to encompass commercial structures for fire safety inspections, irrespective of their height, will go a long way in ensuring compliance.
A 2016 clause introduced into building norms was instrumental in preventing several fire mishaps in the making, by stipulating mandatory 10% mortgage of the constructed space of any multi-storeyed building with the municipal authorities as indemnity for compliance with rules. The clause, if extended to all commercial buildings irrespective of their size, could save many lives in the future.
Enforcement is another key aspect with failure by the civic authorities writ large. Much fanfare preceded the launch of the Enforcement, Vigilance and Disaster Management (EVDM) wing four years ago, as an adjunct to the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC). After initial buzz against lack of fire safety in hospitals and pubs, the wing has been now reduced to slapping penalties against illegal flexi banners and boards.
Special task forces were formed at zonal level of GHMC over a year ago, with the express mandate to crack the whip against illegal structures. Since then, enforcement has become nobody’s baby. Complaints against illegal structures go unheeded across various grievance platforms of the GHMC and the Municipal Administration. Continuance of such anarchy, incentivised by frequent regularisation offers, puts a big question mark on the very relevance of building norms.