India has been the victim of frequent fire accidents for decades. Number of fire accidents have been reported and some devastating to the extent of causing deaths of hundreds of people and causing severe damage to property. In the past, incidents like the 1997-Uphaar cinema blaze in Delhi which caused death of 59 people and severely injured 103 people, 2002-fire in footwear factory of Agra killing 42 people, 2004-Tamil Nadu fire in the Kumbakonam school causing death of 94 children, 2011-Kolkata AMRI hospital fire killing around 90 people etc are some of the high-profile fire incidents. Such cases still occur periodically in India and India has an abysmal record on fire safety that can be seen in the reports of National Crime Records Bureau of 2015, 2016, 2017 that stated deaths of around 17700, 16900, 13100 in the respective years. Besides these incidents over the last few years major fire tragedies have also been reported. 2018-Andheri hospital fire in Mumbai killing 8 people and most recently in the last year at least 3 major fire incidents were reported. Arpit hotel fire in Delhi during February killing 17 people, Surat coaching centre fire in May killing 22 students & Fire in a five-storeyed building in Anaj Mandi of Delhi killing 43 people. An alarming fact that came to the fore was that right before the fire in Anaj Mandi, 2 other factory fires had been reported in the area within a span of 24 hours before the incident, however, both of them were doused before causing any harm. Such frequent incidents portray serious issues in the management and lack of proper enforcement of existing building codes.
Reasons for Repeated Fire Incidents
An analysis of fire incidents in India has shown that non-compliance with safety norms is behind majority of the fire accidents. In both Surat coaching centre fire and Delhi fire in Anaj Mandi cases it was found that the buildings had been converted into commercial buildings despite its authorisation to function only as residential buildings. Such unauthorised actions and flagrant violations of building fire and safety norms have resulted in alarming increase in fire accidents. As per the Accidental deaths and suicides in India report of 2015 it was found that the residential buildings are more prone to fire outbreaks due to human negligence and other causes. Some of the main reasons that can be attributed to the repeated fire outbreaks in India are-short circuits of electrical equipment, ill formed habits like callous disposal of cigarette butts & keeping inflammable substances in areas where works related to fire are being executed, gas cylinder or stove bursting, human negligence in the form of leaving gas cylinder on when not in use, improper maintenance of gas equipment and leaks, negligence toward maintenance of electrical circuits and equipment etc.
Apart from these reasons the non-compliance to safety norms, unregulated manufacturing units and unauthorised colonies also have a major role to play in fire outbreaks. Also it has been seen that despite failing inspection of fire department some institutions continue to function freely without adhering to fire safety standards as was reported in the case of Andheri hospital fire in Mumbai-2018, Surat coaching fire incident where the builder had been served fire department notices regarding the risks that needed to be addressed but the notices were neglected. The Delhi Anaj Mandi fire incident (where the fire exits were blocked and that too with stacks of combustible substances) and in many such cases it has been witnessed that after illegal conversion of residential areas into commercial areas proper fire safety measures like adequate emergency exits, fire-fighting equipment, smoke detectors, well ventilated spaces are not maintained which increases the risks of fire outbreak. Further, apprehending the risk of action of fire department for non-compliance, hotel owners put in place fire safety measures during inspection and after obtaining a fire safety certificate the owners turn a blind eye to the fire safety measures and go ahead with modification of the building, treating the fire exits as storage spaces and absolutely neglect the fire-fighting equipment, smoke detectors and smoke alarms which require regular maintenance. Such careless attitude of owners combined with shoddy works of enforcements agencies by conducting perfunctory inspections and lack of awareness among citizens are responsible for incidences of fire in India. Lastly, use of improper materials for construction of buildings also plays a role in causing fire incidents.
Existing Building Codes in India
India has a National Building Code, 2016 which outlines a set of guidelines for construction, maintenance and functioning of all types of building like residential, educational, healthcare, industrial, business etc. Part 4 of the National Building Code has a comprehensive chapter on fire and life safety. The chapter covers requirements for prevention of fire incidents, protection of building from fire outbreaks and safety of life from fire. The code clearly mentions constructional aspects, requirements and safety features necessary for minimising danger to life and property from fire. The code specifies certain requirements that need to be fulfilled by buildings like number of exits to be provided with respect to building, demarcation of fire zones and restriction of building construction in such zones, types of components to be used in building construction to minimise risk of fires, installation of fire fighting equipments etc. The code also has guidelines for conducting fire drills and also mandates appointment of qualifies fire officer along with other trained staff for dealing with issues of fire outbreaks.
Besides the National Building Code, India also has The Model Building ByeLaws-2003 which focuses on safety of buildings. According to this, the Chief Fire Officer needs to give fire-related clearance to buildings and shall issue a No Objection Certificate after satisfactory inspection of buildings and ensuring that they have proper means of escape in case of fire and have put in place adequate fire protection measures. Without approval of the competent authority occupancy of the building cannot be administered.
Measures Needed to Prevent Fire Incidents
First, it should be ensured that fire-safe buildings are constructed with proper fire-resistant/retardant materials so that even if there is a fire outbreak then it does not spread like wildfire. Second, proper fire detection systems, fire alarms, fire-fighting equipment etc need to be installed for combating fire outbreak. The buildings also need to be provided with proper ventilation and need to be adequately compartmentalised along horizontal and vertical spaces so that in case of fire it remains confined to a compartment and does not cause more damage. Third, periodic assessment and monitoring of fire risks, fire and electrical installation, need to be done by competent authority and stringent action must be taken in cases of non-compliance. In this the Fire Safety Audit will serve as a good tool for assessment of fire safety and hence it must be made compulsory at all places. Fourth, adequate deterrent in the form of heavy fines, imprisonment and license cancellation need to be put in place. Such deterrent measures have been adopted by some of the state governments like the Delhi Fire Service Act, 2007 provides for imprisonment and fine of varying degrees for non-compliance, the Uttar Pradesh Fire Prevention and Fire Safety Act, 2005 also provides similar punishments but of higher degrees for non-compliance. Section 304 A of IPC also needs to be amended to increase the punishment for non-compliance for it to serve as effective deterrent. Fifth, the judiciary also needs to take stringent action in litigations on fire disasters that reach the courts and should establish a proper and strict framework providing for enforcement of fire safety norms and penalties for negligence applicable on people responsible for fire incidents be it building owners or enforcement authorities. Sixth, providing for mandatory insurance for buildings will also prove to be helpful as the insurance authorities with keep a check on the architects, builders etc to maintain proper safety measures because the insurer would aim to reduce risk as much as possible for their own benefit.
Apart from these measures some other necessary steps need to be adopted for prevention of fire incidents. First, it has been seen in numerous cases that official agencies tend to favour tokenism over high standards for safety of occupants or visitors to buildings. For their personal gain they are willing to regularise deviations and non-compliance in the buildings. Therefore, it is extremely important that government introduces transparency and accountability in the enforcements process in order to put an end to corrupt practices. The regulating and enforcing authorities need to provide details of enforcements that are needed as per established rules and regulations and enforcements that have actually been done by them in the public domain so that a proper system of check is maintained on them. Second, as per governments data it has been seen that the number of fire stations in India are abysmally less compared to the number actually needed for the existing population and there is urgent need to address this issue of low staffing and fire services and also there is need for modernisation of fire-fighting departments. Lastly, the issue of lack of awareness needs to be eliminated by using means like regular awareness camps, incorporating study of fire safety in the school curriculum, conducting regular drills to deal with situations of fire outbreaks etc.
Fire accidents in India have become a periodic phenomenon causing loss of life and property. There have been numerous major fire outbreaks even with existing fire safety norms. This calls for adequate modifications in the fire safety norms and proper implementation of those norms in order to combat the issue of fire outbreaks. Government needs to adopt stringent penalties in case of violations of safety standards. Lack of accountability and callous attitude on the part of building owners as well as enforcement officials have become major contributing factors in the increase in incidences of fire and there is need to take them to task so that such incidences can be avoided. There is also the need for creating awareness among people with respect to fire safety measures and how to tackle fire outbreaks so that casualties are minimised. The devastating incidents like that of Surat fires, Delhi fires etc must serve as adequate reminders and it is high time that India realises that a lot of ground has to be covered before India becomes a fire-safe country. India needs to adopt new goals based on lessons learned from the past incidents and with cooperative and dedicated steps it can achieve its goal of a ‘Surakshit Bharat’.