As news poured in on the large-scale human tragedy at Mumbai’s upscale Kamala Mills compound, I was filled with sadness, anger and frustration.
Sadness, because as a father, who had also lost a son in a fire accident I could immediately relate to what each of those families was going through.
Anger, because like most fire accidents, this was highly avoidable too, only if the guidelines were followed.
Lastly, I am frustrated that we as a nation don’t put a premium on public safety.
Each of those emotional outbursts in me gets me more convinced on the path I have chosen to put fire safety on the table in India with Beyond Carlton.
So what went wrong at Kamala Mills?
Well, seemingly almost everything… violations of fire safety laws, illegal construction hindering entry of fire tenders, lack of auditing by the administration, and we could keep adding to this list.
Who is accountable for this tragedy? Of course those who put profits over human safety.
A case has been filed against the restaurant owners. While one has to wait for investigations, culprits must be punished. And it can’t just be owners of the property. My belief is that public safety is finally the responsibility of the government authorities that should not just pass orders but ensure the implementation of it.
This was a negligence by many. All of them should be brought to book and served with the strictest punishment so it serves as a deterrent.
Let’s look at India’s public safety statistics. In 2015, 17,700 Indians died due to fire accidents. Of these, 62% were women. Here’s a rude remainder: Like Kamala Mills, fire kills more women than men.
And it’s not just commercial spaces that are unsafe. More than 40% of fire related deaths take place in residential areas.
Yet, we refuse to learn from our mistakes. In Mumbai alone, more than 30% of the buildings audited by fire brigade were declared unsafe. But no one talks about the corrective actions which should be taken swiftly.
So, what do these statistics tell us? They tells us that we are very vulnerable.
Here are some quick and obvious reasons for the mess we are in:
1. Urbanization and its challenges - With more and more Indian cities bursting at its seams, it clearly shows our urban planners had never planned for this explosion. The huge migration from smaller towns and villages in search of jobs and employment has seen a huge strain on the urban infrastructure. So, we now have more vehicles on roads than ever before and inadequate city infrastructures like roads, traffic management and inefficient local bodies are unable to keep pace with this huge urban explosion.
We were told that ‘smart cities’ will address some of these issues. We are patiently waiting for that dream day to arrive.
2. A casual mindset towards safety – As a nation, we seem to pay very little premium on life and our own safety. How often do we see two wheeler riders avoiding the use of helmets or the sheer negligence to have and maintain fire prevention systems in high rises or many who avoid wearing seat belts in their cars? Why do we take action only when a policeman hauls us up or is seen in the distance? Mind you, a lot of these defaulters have had good education and exposure to global travel. It almost seems like they lack education and understanding in keeping themselves and their families safe. We need a systemic change here to get us to see safety as a priority and not wait for the next fatality in our family.
3. Inefficient local bodies and authorities – How often do we hear that local authorities that are meant to monitor safety aren’t doing their job? While one does recognize that most of these entities are political battlefields, poorly managed, corrupt, inefficient and unprofessional there is a growing desperate need to deliver services to citizens.
4. Archaic laws not in pace with our world today — Most of these entities have archaic laws that haven’t kept pace with the growth of our urban centres. An example, in the case of fire safety in Karnataka, was when we heard that the Karnataka fire department was not authorized to enter buildings and check for violations. How could that be? Who else is competent to check for fire safety? It took an initiative from a citizen’s body like Beyond Carlton to file a PIL and get this corrected through a Court order. Why do we need citizens to get similar changes made that seem obvious? It is time our lawmakers stepped up to deliver the needs for today’s Indian cities.
You could probably add to this list and find many more reasons for why we lose so many fellow citizens to fire, almost on daily basis.
But simply blaming the government and greedy builders won’t be enough. We, as citizens, need to start believing that safety is paramount. Don’t wait for the next fatality or serious injury to take care of your family’s safety. You could be the next statistic in a report otherwise. Wear that seat belt, the helmet; ensure your house and office follow fire safety norms. I would say ask Zomato and Swiggy to rank restaurants based of their safety preparedness.
You may just save your own life or that of a close one. After all, who knows when the next accident or a Kamala Mills fire can happen?
Author is Founder & Managing Trustee of Beyond Carlton (www.beyondcarlton.org) India’s first people’s initiative on fire safety. Uday lost his young son in 2010 in the Bengaluru Carlton Towers fire and has been working on fire safety awareness.