Flawed system

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The Delhi fire tragedy is an ugly manifestation of a system where the preciousness of human lives is belittled and a corrupt culture triumphs. Reports have shockingly revealed that the Karol Bagh hotel in the heart of the country’s capital, in which 17 people including a child were burnt alive last week had brazenly flouted fire safety and construction norms, yet possessed a no objection certificate (NoC) from the fire department. The hotel had six floors, including a terrace covered by highly inflammable material, instead of the permissible four storeys. Even more shocking, the fire safety system was non-functional & fire alarm non-existent, with no emergency exit in sight. Though the Delhi Municipal Corporation has ordered a probe in the incident and Delhi government assured to investigate the manner in which a NoC was obtained despite flouting norms, the malaise appears to be more wide-spread. Similar high-rise buildings going beyond permissible limits and with poor fire safety or other requisites are glaringly visible not only in Delhi but across the country. If the rules can so easily be subverted in the capital city, one can well imagine the fate of buildings in many other cities functioning with full impunity. The incident is reminiscent of the shocking Uphaar tragedy two decades ago in which nearly 60 people were killed and over 100 injured. It is evident that nothing has been learnt from past mistakes. This is primarily because of the existence of corrupt system, insensitivity of the administration towards issues of human safety and a limp legal justice system. The Uphaar cinema hall tragedy is a case in point. It took about 15 years to hold someone accountable in the case but the convicted owners eventually got away by paying monetary compensation which in no way compensates for human lives. The attitudes and the functionality of the system is rooted in the impunity that previous violators have enjoyed. There are thousands of illegally operating hotels and other structures in Delhi alone because of non-implementation of existing law. Things have deteriorated post 2017 due to the parliamentary legislation ‘Special Provision Act’ according to which illegal structures in Delhi are protected from demolition or sealing till December 31, 2020. With such laws to protect, the procedures for norms have also been violated more blatantly. It is difficult to put a finger at any single flaw in the system that allows such tragedies to take place and fails to hold people accountable for criminal neglect. Such incidents are a culmination of various factors. The Karol Bagh tragedy is once again a wake-up call to assess the many problems with the way buildings are constructed, the poor urban planning, quality of electricity which enhances risks of short-circuits and the manner in which citizens are conditioned to respond to instances of fire. The belated arrival of fire tenders, the shortage of staff, infrastructure and vehicles in fire stations is an off-shoot of the flawed system. So is the absence of awareness among people about things like fire safety and the knowledge about ways to respond to such calamities. Fire safety drills form an important component of education in many countries but is sadly missing here. The problem cannot be treated as Delhi centric. Fire incidents have been shockingly taking place in many buildings including hospitals. Few months ago, 8 patients died and over 150 were injured in a Mumbai hospital. A hospital in Bhubaneshwar was caught in a blaze two years ago and claimed 22 lives. One of the most shocking cases in recent memory is of Kolkatta’s AMRI hospital blaze that claimed over 90 lives. The ease with which such incidents are forgotten about within a matter of days is shocking. There is dire need to take the issue of fire incidents seriously, come out with a holistic assessment of the issue and re-design and remodel the cities and the existing systems to meet the challenge.