Experts say that commercial hubs across the city are flouting fire safety norms; The Hindu takes a look at some popular markets to see whether they are safe for visitors
The Kamala Mills fire tragedy in Mumbai, which claimed the lives of 14 people, brought into sharp focus the laxity shown by authorities across India when it comes to maintaining fire safety norms at entertainment-cum-commercial hubs. The Hindu did a stocktaking exercise of the most popular markets in the Capital to see how safe they are for visitors, if safety norms are being followed and whether evacuation measures, in case of a mishap, are in place.
As per a report released by the Delhi Fire Service (DFS) in 2017, over 80% of Delhi’s most popular markets are ‘death traps’ in case of a fire disaster.
There are no strict laws imposed on eateries to either avoid such mishaps or invite minimum damage in case of a fire.
Seating capacity clause
At present, any eatery that declares a seating capacity of less than 50 does not require a fire safety clearance and has relaxed fire safety adherence norms. Many of the restaurants use this clause to their advantage by showing on paper that their seating capacity is below 50.
The DFS informed that if such restaurants do not have proper fire protection equipment then the “legal status is that since they are not obliged [to have a fire clearance], they are not at fault”.
“What most restaurants do is show a seating capacity of 48 or 49 just to escape the clearance requirement, but end up having a dance floor where around 200 to 300 people can be accommodated. All these restaurants must ideally have a fire clearance because their footfall is high,” said DFS Director G. C. Mishra.
“For restaurants that have 10 or 20 seats, enforcing a requirement of two exits of two-metre width will require more space than such eateries have for the dining area,” he added.
High Court order
However, on the part of the authority too there has been laxity. The Delhi High Court, in an order issued in October 2016, had asked the DFS to revisit its policy of classifying assembly buildings by seating capacity within three months of the order, i.e, January 2017. This still remains in the pipeline.
In markets such as Paharganj, which bustle with hundreds of students and foreigners daily, the lanes are so narrow that any rescue operation is nearly impossible. A hub for cafés and guest houses, at least 60% of the establishments in the area brazenly flout fire safety rules. To save a bit of money, the owners of many guest houses have extended buildings till they touch the neighbouring building, leaving no space for an evacuation/rescue route.
Fire officials said that in such a situation there is danger that a blaze could spread from building to building in a flash. The packed buildings also increase the chance of people asphyxiating as there is no space for the smoke to rise up.
Experts said bustling markets have such narrow lanes that there is not enough space for fire tenders to move in.
“In Delhi, places such as Hauz Khas Village, Shahpur Jat and Paharganj are nothing but fire traps. The establishments rarely get their certificates renewed and the intensity of the problem only comes to light when a fire of high magnitude is reported,” said former fire chief A. K. Sharma.
He said the width of the streets, width of corridors, fire escapes, elevators and means of escape are all part of the problem. In most cases, it is not even clear where the fire escape is and what the route to the fire exit is, he added.
Shashi Upadhyay, an architect, said in many eateries and shops there are either no fire exits or the exits have been blocked. Even places that claim to have all fire safety requirements in place merely have a narrow stairway, which may prove to be more dangerous if used during evacuation.
“The concept of fire exits and evacuation routes are not clear in India. During a mishap the panicked crowd are in a hurry to get out of the building, most die due to stampede or fall off buildings,” Mr. Upadhyay said.
In Connaught Place, which is among the most popular hangout spots in Delhi, the road in the middle circle is often filled with waste, debris, containers and other combustible material.
There are clear laws that exist on paper, on fire codes, fire by-laws, fire staircases, width of staircases, fireman’s elevator but most of these are not seen on the ground. Most restaurants in central Delhi’s Khan Market, one of the most posh markets in the Capital, are also packed together and there is a very narrow lane between the two rows of shops.
Experts said that if a blaze was to break out here on the magnitude that was seen in the Kamala Mills tragedy, the death toll will be double.