Fire Safety in India: Missing Policy and Institutional Inertia Is Complicit in the Loss of Lives

In the absence of fire safety regulations, both state and private entities are culpable in endangering people's lives.

Fire accidents are not new in India. More troubling, however, is how often they occur, and the absence of initiative to adhere to, and implement more stringent fire safety regulations. A fire in Delhi’s Anaj Mandi on 8 December 2019 that killed 43 labourers was followed by another in the city’s Kirari area that killed nine on 23 December, and another in Peeragarhi on 2 January, resulted in a building collapse and the death of a firefighter. 

Despite the risk and cost to business that such fire accidents impose, little to nothing is done to improve safety regulations. According to data released in 2017, India has less than 3,000 fire stations against a required 8,559, and fire departments across the country are understaffed by nearly 6,00,000 personnel. On average, 51 people die from fires on a daily basis. 

While understaffing and a lack of resources is a major issue, it is only one facet of the problem at hand. Buildings and other infrastructure projects—often illegal—are indiscriminately built without any consideration for fire safety, with firefighters often unable to access affected areas. The Kamala Mills fire in Mumbai in 2017, which killed 14 people, exemplifies this problem: rapid and unchecked urbanisation has resulted in cities expanding vertically, making it tougher for firefighters to douse flames on higher floors. Basic in-building fire systems like sprinklers and alarms, however, remain absent. Bureaucratic functioning in fire safety too, is a serious concern—only establishments with fire safety licenses can be examined for following safety regulations, while the rest are seemingly ignored. 

This reading list examines the multiple dimensions of fire safety regulations in India, or the lack thereof, and how, in the absence of concerted state intervention, they enable a continuous cycle of fire accidents in the country.

1) An Abdication of State Responsibility

In December 2005, twin disasters struck Delhi: a fire in a garment factory killed 12 people, and in another instance, 12 construction workers were buried alive under debris at a construction site. The cause for both of these, writes Moushumi Basu, is apparent—human neglect of safety norms. Blocked escape routes, and an absence of safety infrastructure in the buildings led to the deaths of workers. Responsibility for tragedies such as these, says Basu, is missing. Both state and private players are quick to shun responsibility.

In the present system of governance where the state is actively withdrawing from its social obligations, leaving it to the market to protect, secure and fulfil the obligations of well-being, the occurrence of accidents such as the above are but an inadvertent fact of reality. The functional logic of private enterprise is profit that it seeks to increase by depressing the expenditure on variable costs to the extent possible. Since, the expenditure on raw materials, machinery, infrastructure, etc, cannot be reduced, the reduction happens almost invariably on the expenses incurred on labour.  

Further, Basu argues that by branding certain structures as “illegal,” the state shuns responsibility for the workers’ well-being.

A visit to the crowded residential area of Vishwas Nagar in east Delhi, officially classified as a non-conforming (industrial) area under the Delhi Master Plan, points to the visibly blatant violation of existing official strictures. Almost every second house in the area, literally speaking, has a factory that functions behind closed doors. An array of manufacturing activities takes place within them, which the local administration conveniently ignores …  Beneath all the glamour and flamboyance that our cities display in the name of modernism, lie buried the unrecorded and unaccounted history of lost and vitiated lives. 

2) Unchecked Gentrification

In December 2017, two restaurants caught fire in Mumbai’s upscale Kamala Mills area, resulting in 14 deaths. Prior to the deindustrialisation of Mumbai in the 1980s, there were 58 active mills. Dwiparna Chatterjee and D Parthasarathy argue that by turning mill compounds into elite spaces of consumption, mill lands have found ways to circumvent laws and safety regulations by renovating, constructing, and modifying existing structures. They write that Mumbai’s gentrification process has only focused on profitability and catering to the elite, has displaced the working class, and has illegally used spaces with little concern for safety and structural stability.

The nexus between politicians, industrialists, and a section of trade union leaders ensured that the underworld became involved in restructuring the mill areas … Mumbai’s gentrification shares similarities with the “commercial gentrification” in Shanghai that Wang (2011) critiques. The entrepreneurial local government and urban development authority facilitated the transformation of mill heritage structures for conspicuous consumption and for inflating land values, even as the new spaces of work, consumption, and culture excluded the erstwhile working class. In effect, the gentrified spaces of what was known as the Girangaon area became “elite enclaves” (Wang and Yu Lau 2009), in which the rising new professional middle class, as well as the old and new rich could fulfil their consumerist fantasies, which could previously be experienced only in global cities such as London, Paris, New York, and Singapore.

3) Weak Laws and Absent Accountability

Ninety-two patients died in Kolkata’s AMRI hospital in December 2011 when a fire broke out in the hospital’s basement, and the fumes spread into other rooms through the building’s centralised air conditioning system. Smita Chakraburtty writes that allegedly, the hospital management intentionally flouted fire safety guidelines.

The hospital management chose to ignore repeated directives issued by the state’s fire safety department. In addition, the hospital put in place an operational strategy called Code Brown, which is a dangerously risky firefighting policy. As per Code Brown, the staff attempts to contain a fire in-house, basically with internal resources, before reporting it to any external agency such as the fire brigade or the police department. This policy was followed in spite of the fact that the hospital had no full time fire officer and had not trained its staff appropriately to deal with a fire crisis situation. 

While the hospital’s managing director and other corporate staff were prosecuted, Chakraburtty contends that this was done on watered-down charges, and argues that the Indian Penal Code is limited when it comes to holding corporate top brass accountable for mass deaths. 

The law requires factual proof beyond reasonable doubt or the direct involvement of the management top brass in the particular activity, which is the cause of death, to hold them guilty for culpable homicide. Therefore, there is a crying need for a law which will create vicarious liability on the part of the senior management, in cases of operational failures of companies resulting in deaths. Cases like this show how easy it is to raise the bogey of middle management blunders to escape the liability of graver charges in instances of mass murders which result from corporate greed. Indian companies are rarely managed on professional lines. Equity owners dictate every step in cutting corners to maximise profit, at the expense of public safety … In the absence of a specificallyspecifically defined legislation on corporate liability and going only by the norms of common law, it is difficult to hold the chief executive officer of a company or the board of directors of a corporation criminally liable for an act that has resulted in the death of individuals, unless they are caught red-handed in perpetrating the act itself or were directly involved in its commission or omission.   

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