26/11 has never left our memory. The burning of Taj captured on television was simply too much to take. We always wished that episode will never return to haunt our memories. But somewhere, those tragic scenes outside Kamala mills took us through those days of 26/11. Although the Kamala mill incident was a mishap, the scenes were quite similar to that dreaded terror attack. There was chaos and confusion. Anxious relatives were waiting to hear from their loved ones. The smoke, the fire and the incessant loss of lives together summed up into a tragic day at ‘One Above’. The inferno at the roof top restaurants took 14 lives on the New Year’s Eve. Most of them were asphyxiated and their deaths highlighted major safety concerns in the financial capital. This incident came at the time when 12 laborers were burnt to death in Mumbai in an eatery just a couple of weeks earlier.
The reaction to the Kamala mills fire was swift even as political parties shunned their responsibility to play blame game. Authorities were quick to book the owners of the said pub and serious charges have been applied on them. The Mayor was categorically rude to remind us of RR Patil who had mentioned that 26/11 was too small an incident to happen in a big city of Mumbai. Nevertheless, the BMC went into a demolition overdrive and demolished many structures which they found illegal. Civic chief Ajoy Mehta instructed all the commissioners of the BMC to set up teams comprising of the building, medical and fire department. The teams are supposed to inspect and investigate fire compliance issues, escape routes and other safety concerns of all such places in the city.
But fundamentally, there are two important aspects which were highlighted in the Kamala mills tragedy.
Firstly, the most shocking eye-opening part of this incident were the ways restaurants are flouting safety norms especially the ones related to fire. The city of Mumbai particularly in the mill dominated areas of the south have suddenly witnessed a boom in hotels, pubs, clubs and lounges. These industrial areas have been converted into zones of recreational activities. But the process to obtain licenses and get a NOC from the civic authorities is still complex and tedious. Easy ways are formulated to speed up the process of obtaining the place and in the midst of it, the safety issues get blurred in the background. As a matter of fact, this has led to malpractices creeping into the process with licenses being doled out without taking safety into consideration. So, if a businessman is planning to open a restaurant, a team of fire brigade officials will visit the area and give a NOC. However, the audit will lack the necessary steps such as physically checking fire equipment or ensuring that there is a fire exit in the vicinity. The licenses too are renewed easily, and the fire safety equipment gather dust.
Secondly, the civic authorities are turning a blind eye to this illegality which is adding to the said problem. The hobnobbing of the civic authorities with potential bar owners’ throws safety concerns out of the window. Any hotelier who is planning to begin a hotel will spend crores and the system is designed in such a way that evil malpractices thrive very easily. After Kamala mills disaster, the BMC has demolished several restaurants in that area in the name of illegality. However, none such demolitions drive or inspection was carried beforehand. The state govt under the pretext of making conditions conducive to do business took the power from the police department and shifted it to the health department of the local ward office. This had made it mandatory for the BMC officials to inspect and report illegality encountered in this process. This perhaps was not implemented thoroughly. The process of getting licenses and audit has many loopholes which help businesses flourish at the cost of safety norms.
So how do we ensure that accidents such as Kamala Mills fire are avoided in the very first place?
Firstly, the owners of the buildings should also be held accountable along with the owners of the restaurants. Old buildings should be heavily examined for any structural damage, exit routes and fire padding in the staircases. In actuality, the new buildings generally comply with these requirements but old ones do not. Demolition Drives should be regular affairs and never a typical spur of the moment action after a disaster.
Secondly, perhaps internal audits for fire safety should be more robust and thorough. If the authorities have checked the fire safety equipment and their working, there should be periodical assessments to make them fully fire proof. Even if a sprinkler system or a fire extinguisher is working when the license is granted, there a possibility it may stop working after say a period of six months. Such audits needs to be carried out regularly and the onus should be shared between the fire department and the civic authorities.
Thirdly, licenses of all the restaurants not complying with the necessary safety concerns should be suspended. If bar and restaurant owners are penalized in this way, perhaps others will take safety issues very seriously.
Lastly, crisis management training should be made compulsory in such places. A lot of people died in Kamala mills as they didn’t get necessary help from the bar workers in lieu with the exit points. They ended getting trapped inside the washroom which eventually led to suffocation and death. Crisis management training for all the staff must be made a mandatory process.
The Kamala mills tragedy was another disaster that has struck the city. The floods during monsoon, dilapidated buildings collapsing, stampedes and now these very avoidable infernos, all hint at just one conclusion – The city of Mumbai is in a deep mess.
And we cannot really romanticize mishaps like this by equating them with Mumbai’s “Resilience’’ or the ‘’spirit’’ of Mumbai. At the end of the day, these are hollow words that make no sense.