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Costly Apathy

The habit of knee-jerk official response to disasters must be broken by public pressure.


The news of building crashes, fires and other accidents in Indian cities and towns are almost always suffered with outrage and an underlying sense of déjà vu and near resignation by most citizens. Almost everything about the so-called accident seems to follow a set pattern: exposure of a series of violations of safety norms and laws aided and abetted by the authorities and promises of swift punitive action by the said authorities, including sympathetic noises. In December 2017, Mumbai witnessed two major fires—one in a swanky pub on the 29th that claimed 14 lives and another in a suburban snack-making unit on the 18th that killed 12 workers. The expected reactions followed in these cases too, accompanied by the familiar kneejerk one of demolishing illegal structures and extensions all over the city. However, the most significant issue that these two incidents and innumerable others (including the stampede at a railway station in September 2017 that led to 22 deaths) across the country bring home is that of ongoing apathy from citizens and authorities alike. The lack of urban planning is only equalled by the lack of the community’s involvement in the process. Such apathy is fuelled by cynicism that things cannot and will not change.

The India Risk Survey 2017 by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry lists 12 risks to business perception and operations in the country. Fire ranks fifth on the list, having gone up by three places from the 2016 survey. The National Crime Records Bureau says that in 2015 a total of 18,450 cases of fire accidents were reported and 17,700 persons were killed. It further adds that 42.1% of those deaths were due to fire accidents in residential buildings. The majority of fire accidents were reported in Maharashtra, which accounted for 22% of these accidents. Interestingly, the survey put corruption, bribery and corporate frauds at the third position. Perhaps, this is a textbook indicator that the more things change the more they remain the same.

As the municipal authorities and the government point to action taken (post the incidents) and justify lack of accountability before, it is time to point out that nothing has been learnt or remembered from a horrific fire that was greeted with similar official action and public outrage. In 2015, eight college students were charred to death in Mumbai as they sat eating lunch in a hotel that had made several illegal changes in its interiors and stored gas cylinders carelessly. The Uphaar cinema hall fire in which 59 persons died in 1997, trapped due to illegal changes in the layout, and the AMRI Hospital fire in Kolkata in 2011 that led to 89 deaths have become part of public memory. But in terms of change for the better in implementation of safety laws, there has been no effect. Doubtless, this is the situation in an overwhelming majority of eateries, hotels, pubs, cinema halls, hospitals, small “industrial” units, sheds, factories and residential buildings across urban India. Any attempt to enforce safety regulations is seen as “harassment” by the builders and business operators. The snack-making unit had stored gas cylinders and other combustible material haphazardly and the workers, many of them migrants, stayed and slept in the loft of the small structure.

The municipal authorities now claim that the owner of the snack-making business had not taken any of the requisite permissions for running it. Similarly, a number of activists claimed that they had alerted the authorities about illegal constructions in the Kamala Mills complex, which houses a large number of posh eateries and pubs. The pub in question opened after being closed for a fortnight but there was no action. Mumbai’s saga of unplanned construction and the use of mill lands to set up businesses and build residential buildings, actively helped and in many cases partnered by politicians is too well known to be repeated here. The situation is not much different in other cities and towns. Across the country, in small or big commercial establishments as well as residential buildings, corrupt and vested interests rule the roost. As is obvious by now, it is not the lack of laws that is the problem but their strict implementation without fear or favour.

It is here that the awareness and vigilance of the community at large play a big role. In most residential buildings, industrial estates as well as so-called illegal settlements, there are residents’ associations that look after day-to-day affairs. Tapping these bodies would be a first step in raising awareness of safety issues. On the one hand, there must be greater respect for safety norms (sadly lacking across all sections) and on the other, a pressure lobby of citizens that must ensure that politicians in power and the authorities enforce these norms. For this, civil society must come together and agitate. The costs of apathy and indifference are too dear.

Updated On : 9th Jan, 2018


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