Rajat Sharma

Delhi Mundka fire: A tragedy that could have been avoided

AKBThe death of 27 people in a devastating blaze at a commercial building in Mundka, West Delhi on Friday evening raises serious questions about how fire safety measures are being implemented across the capital. Nearly 29 people, of them 24 women and five men, are still unaccounted for, with close relatives desperately trying to find clues about their near and dear ones. Twelve persons are in hospital fighting for their lives.

The fire started at around 4.30 pm, probably because of electrical short circuit on the first floor. It soon spread to the second and third floors, and later the flames engulfed the entire four storeyed building. More than 28 fire engines, helped by Delhi Police and NDRF teams were involved in the six and a half hour long firefighting operations, and till Saturday morning, officials were still searching for bodies that have been charred in the fire.

The building, built on Lal Dora land, was supposed to be residential, but was functioning as a commercial building. The owners had no NOC (No Objection Certificate) from Delhi Fire Services. There was only one narrow staircase that served as entry and exit from the ground to the top floors. Fire extinguishers and fire safety alarms were absent in the building, that was being used as a space for offices, factory and godowns.

The fire spread from a CCTV camera and WiFi routers packaging unit on the first floor and soon spread to the second floor, where a motivational session of company staff was going on. While most of the people escaped from the ground floor, those trapped on first and second floors had to be rescued by local residents, using ropes and ladders. Many of those trapped jumped to the ground and had to face critical injuries.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an ex gratia assistance of Rs 2 lakh each to the next of kin of those who were killed, and Rs 50,000 to those injured. Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal visited the spot on Saturday morning with Deputy CM Manish Sisodia and said that those found responsible for this tragedy would not be spared. He announced Rs 10 lakh ex gratia to the kin of those killed and Rs 50,000 to the injured people. Most of the people who died in the inferno were female workers of the packaging unit. The district police chief said, DNA tests will be conducted with the help of forensic staff to identify those who were killed in the blaze.

The Mundka tragedy is the latest in a line of similar ones that took place in Delhi in the recent past. Fifty nine people died in the 1997 Uphaar cinema fire tragedy, while 57 lives were lost in the 1999 Lal Kuan fire trgedy at a chemical market. Seventeen people died in a fire cracker factory blaze in 2018 in Bawana. 45 people died in the 2019 Anaj Mandi paper factory blaze. The same year, 17 people died in a hotel blaze in Karol Bagh.

Two owners of the CCTV camera packaging company, Varun and Harish Goel, were arrested on Friday night, while the owner of the building Manish Lakra is on the run. Since the entire building was engulfed in smoke and flames, fire personnel had to break one of the walls from an adjoining building to carry out rescue operations.

Chief Minister Kejriwal has ordered a magisterial inquiry, but, as it normally happens in such cases, inquiry reports and recommendations are hardly implemented on the ground. There are several lakhs commercial buildings across the capital, which do not have adequate fire safety measures. Most of them have not been given NOC by Delhi Fire Services.

Due to multiplicity of authorities in the Capital, ranging from MCD to DFS to Delhi government agencies, owners of commercial buildings try their best to bend the laws and regulations to suit their own convenience. It is time that the powers-that-be must sit up, take notice and carefully implement plans for providing fire safety.

The tragedy that took place in Mundka could have been easily avoided, had there been several staircases, including a fire staircase from outside. Any regulatory authority could have recommended such measures, like installation of staircases, fire safety alarms and fire extinguishers, which are minimum requirements when such incident take place. Delhi government, along with Fire Services, must carry out a comprehensive audit of all such commercial and residential buildings and enforce regulations with a strong hand.

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