High rise hazard: Fire safety in India, under a smokescreen
In its determined, vertical push to maximise real estate, Bengaluru in India gets a timely reminder. Never to forget the Carlton Towers fire accident 10 summers back, a ‘high-rise’ tragedy that snuffed out nine lives. But did those hard lessons spur the Indian Government to put in place a robust, fool-proof system of fire safety? Recurring fires that see a seasonal spike every summer offer no cause for cheer. Neither do the blatant building by-law violations, the inaccessibility of myriad buildings and lack of a mock drill culture offer hope. The only silver lining: Stringent fire safety guidelines are now in place, even if execution lags. Poorly maintained, its fire exits blocked and its fire fighting equipment in deep disrepair, Carlton Towers was a disaster awaiting a spark. When fire and smoke engulfed the building on 23 February 2010, these faults turned deadly. For Uday Vijayan, who lost his 23-year-old son in the tragedy, it was time to build a new citizens-led fire safety collective, Beyond Carlton. Over a decade, through sustained activism and networking with multiple stakeholders, Beyond Carlton ensured that a major gap in enforcement is addressed through inspection of high-rises by the Karnataka State Fire and Emergency Services once every two years. Its Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Karnataka High Court had forced the State Government to amend fire safety laws, making them more stringent for all high-rises in the state. The amended rules were notified in July 2011.
Fire safety blueprint
To initiate structural changes in policy, Beyond Carlton had prepared a fire-safety blueprint in consultation with the Fire and Emergency Services and the NGO, Janaagraha. The blueprint’s objective was clear: Zero fire accident deaths in Bengaluru City by 2023 and a reduction in fire incidents to 50 percent of the number in 2017.
Divided into two phases of execution, one from 2018 to 2022 and the second from 2021 to 2023, the blueprint has laid out a comprehensive fire safety plan, to be implemented by multiple stakeholders: the Government, the fire brigade, Bengaluru civic amenities (BBMP), the building owners/occupiers and civic organisations.
The blueprint pushes for a retrofit policy for older buildings, mandates that payment of property tax be linked to no-objection certificates from the fire services, recommends private participation in building new fire stations, proposes compulsory burns wards in all well-equipped hospitals and suggests structural changes to ensure robust inter-agency coordination.
Activism combined with policy changes indeed makes an impact. To amplify the message, Beyond Carlton recently launched a #IamAFireChamp campaign, as part of a series of events marking the initiative’s 10th year. The campaign intends to create awareness on how one can be a fire champion and make a valuable contribution to the community by preventing fire accidents. The campaign mandates that respondents send a 15-second video showing what type of dwelling they live or work in and what action they took to make it fire safe. It could be a safety check, educating people about fire safety or a check on preparedness.
Citing the Accidental and Death Statistics India (ADSI) 2018 report released recently by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), Uday Vijayan explains why awareness is critical and urgent, “In a span of four years from 2015 to 2018, we lost 60 507 lives due to fire. As many as 12 748 people died in 2018, which means that about 35 Indians die in a fire every day.”
This is a staggering figure, a statistic not lost on the city currently on a vertical overdrive. “Now more people are applying for fire clearance certificates. Apartment associations are getting more conscious about fire safety. It is the first positive sign,” Vijayan notes. But the progress of this awareness is painfully slow. “Maintaining the fire fighting equipment is quite expensive. Sprinklers, separate, dedicated tanks, all costs money. This, unfortunately, leads to poor maintenance and when they are needed the most, the pumps do not work. Internal systems are extremely vital for high-rises.”
To ascertain the current state of fire safety systems, Beyond Carlton, along with the Bengaluru Apartments Federation (BAF) and Jain University, has now undertaken an assessment of residential high-rises based on 20 parameters. As a first step, a pilot of about 90 apartments was taken up last year. “Jain University students, trained in fire safety audits, are part of the assessment process. It is happening in batches. We have so far covered over 100 apartments. We want to strengthen the process,” explains Vikram Rai, General Secretary of BAF, an umbrella organisation representing 656 apartments associations with an estimated 1,3 lakh flats.
Beyond self-assessment, the federation has an issue with the inspection by the Fire and Emergency Services: Lack of clarity. Rai explains, “The tariff is steep, upwards of Rs25 000 per block. We had suggested that if the department has manpower issues, why not let empanelled vendors do it. Conversations are in progress to rationalise the tariffs and streamline the inspections.”
From a long-term perspective, a robust fire-safety mechanism for high-rises can emerge only through multi-stakeholder participation. Fire safety experts and citizen activists had stressed this point at a recent meeting with the Deputy Chief Minister. In 2018, the State Government had issued an order constituting a coordination committee comprising the Bruhath Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), Bangalore Electricity Supply Company (Bescom), the Confederation of Real Estate Developers Associations’ of India (CREDAI) and Beyond Carlton. However, till date, the committee has not had a single meeting. So much for urgency.
Source: Deccan Herald