Mantralaya Blaze Do Not Forget The Lessons
outh Mumbai’s Nariman Point is the nerve centre of India’s economic capital abutting the Arabian Sea; it is one of the costliest pieces of real estate on planet earth. Nariman Point houses numerous high-rise buildings and the seven-storey Mantralaya (secretariat) building is the tiniest of all.
Around 3 PM on June 21, the TV channels broke the news of fire in the secretariat building. The fire started on the fourth floor due to electric short circuit. The fire department and police were informed. Owing to lackadaisical response from agencies concerned to control the fire, it, in no time, spread horizontally and vertically engulfing the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh floors. In just three hours four floors of the building, housing the offices of the Chief Minister, Deputy Chief Minister, Ministers of Tribal Welfare, Animal Husbandry & Fisheries, Excise, Housing, PWD, Culture, Higher and Technical Education, Environment and Non-Conventional Energy departments; state’s Chief Secretary office and state disaster management cell were reduced to ashes. Five persons lost their life in the accident. The communication centre atop the building, which linked all districts of Maharashtra to the secretariat was also gutted. All records and computers kept in these offices were destroyed.
It was disconcerting to observe flames leaping out of the windows fanned by sea wind; fire engines standing idle for want of water and fire men trying to improvise ladders to rescue people perched on the window sills. It was a sheer novice response to a crisis—raising many questions regarding the competence and preparedness of the state’s fire department and observance of fire and life-safety rules by the authorities in the secretariat.
Apportion of blame for the mishap is rather confusing in this case. Observing fire-safety regulations is the responsibility of secretariat officials; maintenance of fire-safety equipment and infrastructure of the secretariat is under public works department and fire-fighting manpower and infrastructure come under the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. Since every agency has faltered in this case, shifting of blame and mudslinging, which follows a mishap is not so intense. Confidence of a common Mumbaikar in government’s ability to manage disaster is badly shaken. If the fire department cannot douse flames on the fourth floor, how can it handle a blaze on the fourteenth floor? This is a common refrain among the public.
Secretariat is a public place. It has thousands of staff and receives visitors in droves from all over the state. Like all public places some chaos is expected here, but the case of Mantralaya is little different. It is the seat of power of the Government of Maharashtra. People serving here consider themselves above law. They can browbeat any official or department who tries to find fault with them. Exactly the same thing happened in 2008, fire department had carried out a safety survey of the building and had noticed many irregularities. A notice was served to the mandarins of Mantralaya, who chose to ignore the good counsel and court an impending disaster instead.
WHAT MUST HAVE GONE WRONG
- The staff at Mantralaya was not trained in fire fighting, disaster management and evacuation.
- The staff working at various floors was not formed into teams and groups to fight fire and assist during crisis situations.
- Fire fighting or any other disaster management mock drill was not conducted for the staff in the last five years, which should be held at least once in a quarter.
- Advice from experts was never sought and audit report from the fire department was ignored.
- Entrance to the building was blocked by haphazardly parked cars. Drivers of these vehicles had joined the crowd of evacuees. No effort was made by the staff to regulate traffic. The fire engines could not reach the burning building. To make way, fire fighters had to tow away some cars.
- To coordinate fire-fighting efforts, fire control room did not function.
- Fire-fighting system of the building was ill-maintained. Its hydrants were laid underground (a relic of 1950s) and choked with silt.
- Location of hydrant valves was not known to the fire fighters. Eknath Khadse, the leader of the opposition in Maharashtra Assembly, mentioned during a live debate on TV channel IBN7 on June 22 that fire fighters had to dig up to locate the hydrant valves buried outside the building. There was no water in the hydrant line.
- Fire water tanks in the building did not have water and the pumps failed to lift the water.
- The staff responsible to operate fire fighting system of the building was not available.
- The wet risers connecting the various floors were also dry.
- No fire sensor and alarm and sprinkler system worked nor were these installed.
- Water jets from fire engine could not reach even up to the fourth floor.
- The idea to make use of BMC’s water hydrants came as an afterthought and too late.
- Server rooms and communication hub did not have with self-sensor automatic Halon-type fire extinguishers. Costly equipment and data on servers could have been saved.
- Members of the staff did not try to fight fire by operating fire extinguishers and hose reels and those who tried, to their dismay, these equipments did not work.
- The building was stacked with old files, disused furniture and office equipment like a warehouse. Presence of combustible material helped in spreading fire.
- Floors did not have brick partitions which could have contained the flames. Wooden partitions abetted flames.
- Electric wiring was old and overloaded due to numerous air-conditioners, computers, office equipments and UPSs plugged to it.
- Fire-fighting equipment that was initially brought in by fire department was not suitable to fight fire in high-rise buildings.
What must have gone wrong at the Mantralaya building? Stories suggesting a planned sabotage to destroy the documents pertaining to various scams in which the lawmakers and bureaucrats of the present government are allegedly involved are already doing round. Prima facie it is a case of criminal negligence—endangering public life and property. The list of lapses is very long and proofs of some of these omissions must have been destroyed by fire. However, following glaring shortcomings were noticed, some of the politicians were candid enough to acknowledge these to media (See box).
Today many departments of the secretariat have no work and no place to work from. Enormity of loss in monetary terms or otherwise is enormous. Bureaucracy which loves its paper work will give a tough time to all those petitioners and applicants who had their cases pending with the secretariat. The administration is talking about data retrieval and recreation of case files by seeking copies from the subordinate departments, but how can the notings on lost files be recreated? We all know that the notings on policy decisions are an important lead in gauging the mala fide intent. This situation can spawn new avenues for corruption at all levels.
The hierarchy of government offices is built on the edifice of bada babu chhota babu and bada saheb chhota sahab system. Comfortably ensconced in their overstuffed cabins they feel all too important and collective responsibility towards crisis management appears menial to them. That explains the sudden disappearance of all and sundry when they were supposed to organise fire fighting, guide fire fighters, operate fire fighting system, evacuate people (especially unsuspecting visitors), save property and man the fire control room. Unlike the corporate sector where everyone from CEO to executive takes part in mock drills, forms part of disaster management groups, attends training sessions and takes his/her little role seriously, story is entirely different in government offices where it is so difficult to get willing cooperation from uninterested staff. Just imagine, can a lowly security officer muster courage to inform the Chief Secretary that he/she has to attend a training session on first aid and casualty evacuation? Leadership and cooperation are best practised by setting personal examples.
Government offices have a peculiar ambience of their own. Laden with dust and cobwebs, overstuffed with old files, disused furniture and other office paraphernalia these look like a rundown warehouse. Rows of rusted almirahs containing supposedly indispensible archive from bygone era block entrance, corridors, staircases and emergency exits. Power panels are left open, switch boards dangle from their frames and decrepit wiring goes all over precariously hanging, serving as a perch for visiting pigeons. Every year some more airconditioners, heaters, computers and other office gadgets get added to already overloaded wiring. Short-circuit is an obvious fallout of this negligence. Red-coloured buckets, supposed to hold water and sand to douse fire are used as spittoons. Standard of housekeeping, record management and disposal of junk is pathetically poor. Amidst all this chaos staff sit in their stuffy cubicles surrounded by files and filth in equal measure. Had it not been for the power that is vested here, no citizen would ever like to visit these unkempt and dangerous buildings. Story is the same whether one visits a tehsil headquarters or haloed North Block. As I write this, there is a fire accident in one of the offices of Ministry of Home Affairs in North Block.
Due to public apathy, bureaucratic indifference and corporate greed, safety and security of public places is a big concern in India. Common citizen’s life is always at risk. Markets, transport systems, fairs, religious shrines, malls, work places, recreational areas, offices—all have some or the other form of dangers lurking in there. There is a requirement of carrying out a threat perception and taking preventive measures accordingly. Life is precious—we cannot compensate it with ex-gratia payment that our politicians so promptly announce soon after a tragedy. Unless we respect and value life of an Indian, we will not be able to protect him/her from disasters and terror attacks.
In a fatalistic society like ours where a tragedy is accepted as a result of karma from the previous birth, it is quite difficult to convince people that precautions can actually avert disasters.
“Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so”, said Douglas Adams, and this applies to us Indians. Tragedy after tragedy and loss of life and property cannot impel us to arrive at a cohesive strategy and action plan to deal with crises situations for which we have expertise and resources but no motivation. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation has decided to carry out fire safety survey and audit of all buildings of the metropolis. Let us see for how long this motivation and sincerity lasts. The Mantralaya fire is a wakeup call or else we will be revisiting our lapses when fire breaks out in some other high-rise building in the country.
By Colonel US Rathore