June 18, 2021
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No Lessons Learnt

How long would we keep on debating the causes of Meerut, Uphaar Cinema tragedy or Mandi Dabwali fire? What stops preventive and corrective measures to be taken urgently? Is blaming the authorities alone not a cop-out? Don't the private bodies need to

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No Lessons Learnt
No Lessons Learnt

The transcript of the BBC Hindi special programme Aapki Baat BBC Ke Saath with former Cabinet Secretary TSR Subramanian and former chief of Delhi Fire Services, S.K. Dheri in wake of the recent fire in Meerut that killed 42, and the rioting and violence following the death of actor Rajkumar in Bangalore.

Nagendar Sharma: Is there some way to prevent innocent people from being killed in public places due to accidents and acts of terror?

T.S.R. Subramanian: The Meerut incident was really an unfortunate thing to have happened. Natural tragedies can happen anywhere in the world, whether it be America, Germany, Japan or India. Just recently a terrible accident happened in Austria, for example. These things can happen, but the problem is that man-made tragedies are common in India and we are not prepared to handle them. The preventive steps which should be taken are missing. That is the cause for worry.

S. K. Dheri: Incidents like Meerut would keep on happening in our country. I am sorry to say this for the simple reason that we do not want to learn any lesson after any incident, whether big or small. After Mandi Dabwali fire, in which hundreds of children were burnt along with some parents, we had drawn up comprehensive guidelines in Delhi. We had explained which type of cloth should be used for putting up tents, where should the location of kitchens be, the placing of exit and entry points, and their numbers, the kind of electricity wiring to be done and so on. Today, I can say with satisfaction that since these guidelines were adopted in Delhi, no major fire accident has taken place. I am not ready to believe such accidents would not take place in future as mistakes are bound to happen. What is required is urgent preventive measures in the first place and corrective measures in the second.

Nagendar Sharma: Mr Dheri, you have claimed that no major fire incident has taken place in Delhi due to comprehensive guidelines, but critics say wherever such accidents have been averted, it has been mainly by chance and pure luck -- the fire authorities have had little to do with such chance successes.

S. K. Dheri: Well, the problem is that fire safety is not in the concurrent list, it remains a state subject under the Constitution and that is why al these doubts arise. Now, various state governments have their own ways of dealing with fire safety. In some places, it is under municipalities, while in some it is under civil defence, at some places it is under the police and yet in some other states it is directly under the state government. Till the time there is uniformity in training and service, clarity in functional rules and clear legislations, fire safety would continue to be a neglected area of governance.

Listener from Madhya Pradesh: Why is it not made compulsory to have mandatory fire safety checks before erecting tents (pandals) for public functions and marriages? Why are there no specialised departments to check this to avoid mass scale death and destruction due to mismanagement?

S. K. Dheri: In my view, multiplicity of authorities in any event would only complicate matters and such an inspector raj would lead to more corruption. What is required is that the building authorities or the municipalities, which give permission or no-objection certificate for putting up pandals, should have a free hand. Laws exist, it is a case of implementation. Now, the present fire safety laws state that anyone seeking permission for putting up a pandal for a function or marriage is bound to give a written undertaking that all safety rules would be complied with, but, despite that, organisers do not comply. Also, it is the general public which should also come forward. How many of us are serious about fire safety? It is easy to blame the administration for any mishap, and our expectations from the administrative machinery are very high, which is not able to cope with the work load.

T.S.R. Subramanian: There have been two incidents in the recent past which can be taken as examples. First, the fire in Meerut and secondly, the public outrage at the death of Kannada actor Rajkumar. Both these situation were such where the administration should have understood the public sentiments, should have made all attempts to have appeared sympathetic in word and action, and should have tried to pacify the surcharged atmosphere.

In Meerut, I am not defending the local administration, what was wrong and who should take the blame would be clear when the inquiry report comes out. But there is another aspect related to Meerut, which is by an large forgotten. It was a fair organised in collaboration with big industry bodies such as FICCI and ASSOCHAM. We are living in an age of rapid privatisation, may I ask what did these big names do after the incident had taken place? Did they try to share the grief of victim families? Why did they not ensure world-class safety regulations when they talk of making the country world class? It is not fair that private houses reap huge profits and administration take all the blame. This should also be kept in mind before we attack the administration.

Listener from Meerut: How long would we keep on debating the causes of Meerut, Uphaar Cinema tragedy or Mandi Dabwali fire? What are the law makers doing? We in Meerut, after this incident, have a feeling that corruption continues to destroy the country and nobody is bothered about the common man and his safety.

T.S.R. Subramanian: The anger of the people of Meerut is absolutely justified, but I fear the solution is not easy nor is it straightforward, the reason being that corruption has permeated into our system to a level where nothing seems possible. In the political class, from the very top right down to grassroots, corruption is the only thing which is uniform. Now we keep on shouting that it should be eradicated, but just spare a thought and think whether is it possible.

Who would like to root out corruption? I can say from my administrative experience: nobody. Neither the political class, nor the bureaucracy, nor judiciary or business class – none of them is interested in removing corruption as all of them collectively benefit from it. If the faith has to be restored, then in a case like Meerut, exemplary punishment must be given to those responsible for claiming more than 50 innocent lives and this should happen within a six month period, so that the public of the country does not feel deceived. Accidents cannot be stopped from happening, but by concrete preventive measures, we can certainly bring their number down, which seems a tall order right now.

Listener from Lucknow: Are there existing laws on fire safety in the country? If there are, how are these implemented as common man does not know anything about such laws?

S. K. Dheri: There are laws, and so far as Meerut is concerned, I would not like to comment on the blame part, as the probe is on, I would like to wait for its outcome. But so far as the incident is concerned, the synthetic material used for putting up pandals was the one which has come up recently, especially after private sector has started showing interest in public fairs. This material was used to keep the air-conditioning effective. I find many similarities between Meerut and Mandi Dabwali fire, where I had worked with the CBI as an expert. In both places, the exit gates were too few and faulty. In both cases, majority of dead bodies were found near the gates, which proves that people were trying to rush out in panic. In both places, the material used for pandals appears similar. With all this, there is no doubt left that we are not learning any lessons. In Delhi, a fire brigade is stationed outside a function venue or even at a rally venue, even if there is no danger of fire. It is a preventive measure. You asked about rules, well, the rules even say that you can pay to have a fire brigade stationed outside the pandal. How many people do it? It is thought better to spend a few more lakhs on the marriage, than spending a few hundreds on fire safety.

Listener from UP: We are talking about safety of common man, and in this context, I would like to know that the latest bomb blasts in Delhi's Jama Masjid show our administration, security forces and intelligence agencies in poor light. Those who are expected to anticipate are found wanting. Why?

T.S.R. Subramanian: In Kashmir and some other parts of the country, terrorism levels have been on a rise, and the same is true for some other parts of the world also. I agree with you that is a worrying sign. However to say that quality of our intelligence agencies is low is not correct. We have high quality intelligence network, the problem is in the area of anticipatory intelligence to prevent the acts of terror from taking place. The reason for this is the lack of coordination between central and state intelligence agencies. I would give you an example – in parts of Bihar, Chattisgarh and Orissa the naxal attacks have been on the rise – to an extent that in some cases naxalites have got over 12 hours of free run at remote police stations, before the armed forces could arrive. Now this has been because of the absence of anticipation on the part of our intelligence agencies and there is a lot of scope of improvement in this area.

Listener from Patna: Disasters would keep on happening, be they man-made or natural. Why has the administrative machinery failed so far in educating the public about these?

S. K. Dheri: This is a very good point. Public education on disaster management, whether natural or man-made – has been somehow missing the priority list in our country. Today 96 percent of the country's population is covered by media – radio/TV/cableTV/newspapers. Now this is an area where the media can play a very important role in making the people aware about their safety if a disaster strikes. For example – Uttaranchal government in recent years has taken good initiatives in earth-quake awareness programmes right upto villages with its existing tools itself.. Today people in that state know what to do in case a quake hits them. Such initial steps are quite useful in ensuring people's safety in the case of any incident.

Listener from Delhi: So much is talked about Kumbhakonam school tragedy in Tamil Nadu, Mandi Dabwali and now Meerut. Why can’t there be a separate ministry or department for fire safey?

S. K. Dheri: That there is no attention towards fire safety is not hidden from anyone. Seventy percent of India lives in villages and fire safety as well as fire brigades are almost unheard of in this vast area of the country. We talk of competing with Europe and rest of the West, which looks like a joke. In those parts of the world, fire brigades reach the affected places in three minutes in urban areas and within five minutes in the rural areas. Whereas in capital Delhi, it takes at least 20-22 minutes for the fire engines to reach the spot. Till the time fire safety is shifted from state list to the central list, and a proper legislation for uniform fire safety rules and regulations is brought about, tragic incidents would keep taking place and we would keep discussing them later on !

Nagendar Sharma: Mr Dheri, you are saying that fire safety is unheard of in rural areas, but accidents are taking place frequently in urban areas -- for example in capital Delhi and its surrounding areas, the National Capital Region (NCR), how safe are these, taking into account the increasing number of high-rise buildings coming up?

S. K. Dheri: Well, so far as Delhi is concerned, on the basis of population, there should be at least 67 fire stations here, but presently there are only 45. There is a legislation here called the Delhi Fire Safety Act, which has a lot of precautionary provisions incorporated in it. However, the real danger is in National Capital Region, whether it be Gurgaon, NOIDA, Ghaziabad or any other adjoining region. There are no fire safety regulations here, high rise buildings both residential and commercial do not adhere to rules nor do they have fire safety equipments. Strangely, no emergency facilities have been provided in case of eventualities like fire. Similarly, none of the states under which these NCR townships fall have any legislation for fire safety. The high rise buildings coming up at great pace in NCR towns would not be able to cope up with either natural or man made disasters.

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