J&K Fire Safety Matter of serious concern

Excelsior Rakesh

Rajan Gandhi
Delhi Anaj Mandi fire has once again exposed the hollow claims of public safety while issuing NOCs to the buildings and establishments and it is more painful as all this happened in national capital right under the nose of Central Government. This incident again cleared the air that there will be any drastic measures undertaken to check all these loopholes to secure public from such mishaps in future. Respective governments have failed to learn any lesson from the Uphaar Cinema fire, one of the worst fire tragedies in recent Indian history. The fire started on Friday, 13 June 1997 at Uphaar Cinema in Green Park, Delhi during the three o’clock screening of the movie ‘Border’. Fifty-nine people died of asphyxiation, while 103 were seriously injured in the resulting stampede. The victims and the families of the deceased later formed The Association of Victims of Uphaar Fire Tragedy (AVUT), which filed the landmark civil compensation case and won it in 2015, long struggle of 18 years after the tragedy.
Jammu and Kashmir is no different as time and again fire tragedies have struck from time to time in J&K as well. It is really astonishing to know that though Jammu and Kashmir’s economy mainly depends upon tourists and as such there are thousands of hotels and guest houses, but without a Fire Safety Act till now. Isn’t it surprising that lives of crore plus tourists have been continuously put to risk since independence with respective state governments ignoring this vital aspect and turning a blind eye repeatedly year after year. In the absence of such an act it’s a mystery how JMC, Tourism Department, Fire Department were issuing NOCs to hotels/guest houses, was any inspection being done, if yes then how all these establishments got the NOCs to run the business, has any hotel/guest house been sealed for violation of safety norms or any legal action been taken ever. Answer will definitely a big no as Fire Safety Department just points out the deficiencies but has no legal sanctity to prosecute the defaulters except giving them notices in the absence of Fire Safety Act. Not long ago Hotel Neelam at Bus Stand Jammu got engulfed in fire due to fire in the dumped tyres on the ground floor in the middle of night and sleeping inmates had no escape route except that one entrance which was already engulfed in fire. Four persons lost their lives and it is extremely important here to point out that inspection by fire department had objected to tyre godown but no legal action was taken. Who is responsible for this criminal negligence? With the UT status now Jammu and Kashmir has got all the central laws applicable including Fire Safety Act and National Building Code but still how many of these hotels and guest houses are entitled for NOC is matter of concern and debate.
Finally in November this year administration issued the instructions to conduct Fire Safety Audit and subsequently teams comprising one official each from Revenue Department, Power Development Department, Tourism Department and Fire Department have been deputed to conduct the requisite audit. Audit teams looked into various aspects which included distance from nearest fire station and accessibility in case of fire, details of building with entrance and exit points, existing fire fighting system and recommendations as per norms of National Building Code which clearly defines various aspects of fire safety to be strictly adhered to safeguard people. As per NBC all exits/staircase should be kept open and free from any obstruction for easy and safe evacuation of inmates during any emergency, necessary provision of fire extinguisher near main electric switch board panel as electric short circuit is the major reason of fire most of the time, buckets filled with sand at easily approachable place in the premises, hose reel and hoses as per BIS specifications connected with the terrace tank of at least five thousand liters capacity and hose reel placed at such a point that it covers every nook and corner of building along with a fire pump installed near underground water storage tank with dual electric supply for feeding the overhead tank. Separate exit point for safe evacuation of inmates in case of fire is mandatory. An electric/manually operated fire alarm system is a must in every building. No hazardous material should be kept in inside the building premises especially LPG, petrol, diesel, rexine, plastic etc. A separate concrete reinforced cabin for LPG cylinder in the kitchen has to be there. All the electric installations should be concealed conduit type with no naked or loose wiring. Periodic inspection of fire fighting system installed in the building is a must. Training of watch and ward staff of the hotel/guest house is mandatory along with display of glow signs of exit routes so that inmates can easily come to safer places and telephone numbers of the nearest fire station should be displaced at numerous places.
These are only the simplest norms which Jammu administration is asking for to adhere to with more stringent laws of NCB like open space all around building, mandatory parking place, width of approach roads, waste water filtration have been set aside right now as almost every other building will be unable to follow these. With these kind of NBC instructions to be followed strictly it is interesting to know how many hotels/guest houses follow them and except few no one is fulfilling the mandatory conditions and as such how the NOCs have been given to these buildings and what follow up actions have been taken which includes cancellation of NOCs. It is more concerning that in densely populated lanes/ by lanes of congested old city have many hotels/guest houses have come up, how and when is a question nobody wants to answer. More concerning is the fact that has any accountability been fixed of the concerned authorities under whose jurisdiction these illegal buildings have been constructed and how many departments have acted against their own officials for dereliction of their duties.
Role of police is equally important as each and every staff member of hotel/guest house has to be police verified keeping in view of the terrorism in UT of J&K especially areas around railway station and bus stands as these areas act as transition points to the OGW and miscreants. In the past Jammu Master Plan had been announced with much fanfare but never adhered to and more recently Jammu Master Plan 2032 has also been put in place and is supposed to be followed strictly in letter and spirit by every department. With the Smart City dream also to be fulfilled and old city, bus stand and railway stations are very much part of this project, but it seems all these things are just on papers only as no one seems to be serious about implementation of the rules and regulations. Time and again intervention by High Court as well speaks about the actual state of affairs. It depicts the sad state of affairs how things get manipulated, how NOCs get issued and ultimately public pays the price with the loss of life and property.
With the UT of J&K now established almost all central laws have to be implemented and as such Fire Safety Act and NBC have to be followed immediately. Keeping in view J&K being in seismic zone of 4 and 5 of high danger, not only fire safety but structure of the building has to be earthquake resistant, with total non combustible material to be used. Water conservation and green buildings are the new norm of modern construction but none of these types of buildings are coming up in our J&K. Why no seriousness on the ground level on the issue of utmost importance? Only photo shoot events for newspapers should be avoided. With the audit inspection work already finished what corrective measures will be taken remains to be seen. Will any hotel/guest house be sealed or penalized or fined or job of the administration is over without any follow up action as in the past and wait for some major tragedy at the cost of public to wake us again. Proactive approach is the need of the hour, world class infrastructure has to be built, safety of tourists and public have to be taken care at the earliest. There are many professional consultants who are members of NBC available in J&K and as such they can properly guide the builders at every stage and authorities must ensure technical inspection by these experts before issuing NOCs. Moreover why this exercise has been for hotels and guest houses only, why not for every commercial building, be it government or private, hotels, hospitals, schools, offices or any public place. Obviously safety of people should be the prime focus as such the earliest we do it, better it will be.