A fire that broke out in Kailash Bar in Bengaluru's Kalasipalyam locality earlier this week claimed the lives of five employees. The employees, who were sleeping in a dingy room inside the bar, are believed to have suffocated to death. The bar had only one exit and was windowless, and the victims hadn't been given a key to get out in case of a mishap. It did not have fire extinguishers either. This was a tragedy waiting to happen. Fire accidents in public buildings and residential complexes are common in India. The past month has seen several such incidents in major cities. In late December, a fire at a popular rooftop pub in Mumbai's Kamala Mills complex left 14 people dead and 50 injured. Ten days prior to that tragedy, a fire in a snack shop in Mumbai's Saki Naka area killed a dozen labourers. As part of their knee-jerk response to the Kamala Mills tragedy, fire department authorities in Mumbai and other cities swung into action. The Karnataka Department of Fire and Emergency Services, too, carried out fire audits of hotels, restaurants and pubs in Bengaluru's posh central business district. The audit did not cover restaurants and pubs in areas like Kalasipalyam.
Knee-jerk reactions in the wake of tragedies are mainly aimed at fending off criticism and impressing the public. They achieve nothing substantial. What we need is a comprehensive plan to make all buildings fire-safe, not just those in up-market areas. Importantly, the rules should be implemented consistently. The rulebooks require builders to get 'No-Objection Certificates' (NoCs) from the fire department and the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike. In some cases, however, officials issue such certificates without actually inspecting the buildings. In others, NoCs are issued even if the construction violates safety norms, that is, where electrical wiring is substandard or no emergency exits are provided. There are cases, too, of buildings being found to violate norms but are 'regularised' through payment of a bribe or a fine. Then there are buildings that meet safety standards only at the time of acquiring of the NOC, after which rules are flouted with impunity. This happens, for instance, when staircases of high-rises are used as storerooms and thus become unavailable for escape when disaster strikes.
The owners of the building where Kailash Bar was located violated fire safety rules. It is important that they are arrested. Officials who issued licences for the building must be punished, too. Mock fire drills involving the public are necessary, so that people know how to respond in the event of a fire.