CHENNAI: Saleema (name changed) was a few metres away from her cloth shop when she saw a thick blanket of smoke billowing from her store. She sprinted towards it, the smoke now choking her as she got closer. But before she reached, the fire gutted her shop. Saleema broke down, inconsolably.
In June 2017, about 72 hours after the Chennai Silks building in T Nagar went up in flames, a fire erupted in another part of the city — at Suntec City Shopping Complex, in Purasawalkam, which housed about hundred shops.
Here, Saleema owned three shops, of which two burned to ashes.
A year later she has rebuilt her stores. Other shopkeepers left the building, and their shops have been converted into a large electronics showroom by a single owner.
In 2017, the fire accidents, which caused the city a property loss of `792 crore, should have been a wake-up call for civic authorities and shopkeepers to install fire safety equipment in all the public markets. But, the lessons seemed to have been forgotten overnight. Fire safety measures are still missing. “Nahi Ma’am. Uski zaroorat hi kya hai? (No ma’am. What is the need?),” said the owner of the electronics showroom.
No fire-safety licence
After the fire tragedy at Chennai Silks, the Fire Safety Department sent out caution notices to 1,244 commercial buildings in the city of which 370 were in north Chennai, 404 in central Chennai, 450 in south Chennai and 20 in suburban zones. The stores had either not complied with fire safety norms, or were yet to procure a licence.
“Not even one building in Ranganathan Street in T Nagar has been sanctioned a fire safety licence, including popular commercial chain that has various branches in the city. The situation is similar at Purasawalkam, Broadway and few buildings in Chromepet, which is fast emerging as a commercial hub,” said an official from the Fire Safety Department.
The fire safety authorities have warned Saleema, and the owner of Suntec City, but both are yet to take a serious note of it. “A lot of money was involved in setting up the shops again from scratch and we did not want to waste money on this,” she said.
High Court order
Following these incidents, when shops didn’t pay heed to caution notices by Fire Safety Department, the Madras High Court in 2017 passed an order asking all the shops sans fire safety licence to display a board outside their shops, saying they operate without fire safety equipment.
“The Madras High Court directed the state government to install a board outside each multi-storeyed building (violators) saying they do not comply with the fire safety norms. However, only posters were stuck following the order, which were torn by the building owners within a fortnight. From then on, no boards have been installed and when enquired, they stated shortage of funds to be the reason behind non-installation,” said S Jayaraman from T Nagar Residents Welfare Association.
“When the fire broke out at T Nagar, the local fire engine reached on time, but firefighters from other areas had a difficult time driving through narrow roads,” said Kannan Balachandran, a resident of T Nagar. The firefighters had to operate from the Usman Road flyover, resulting in a delay in dousing the flames.
As per development regulations of Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), the access road width for multi-storeyed buildings must be 18 m or with limitations up to 12 m or 15 m. But, the access road width in T Nagar is still less than 4 m. While at night it may be a tad easier to get into the narrow lanes, fire engines might not be able to access commercial streets due to the crowd and encroachment during the day. To avoid such incidents and make accessibility better, fire safety officials measured the streets of T Nagar to expand the base for shopkeepers. But, it remains to see the light of the day.
Absence of equipment
A fire safety report was compiled by Multi Storey Inspection team in 2015, flaws were identified and defaulters were served notice. No action has been taken yet.
A famous retail chain in the city, with over four branches in T Nagar and two in Broadway, has already witnessed a fire accident, but still does not comply with safety norms. The Fire department mandates two 9-litre extinguishers for every 200 sq m in addition to the 5 kg extinguishers, but this chain of stores has only four 5-kg extinguishers on each floor.
“Ninety per cent of the commercial buildings do not possess automatic sprinkler system, underground water tank as per required capacity (1.5 lakh l), fire lift, a set back area, exit sign, emergency lights along the staircases, fire damper and a building management system,” said an official from fire safety.
“Goods are stacked on all floors and staircases, leaving no space for customers to escape in case of fire,” said P Balachandran, one of the customers at a store in Broadway.
According to the official, even if the automatic detection system and manually operated fire alarm points are installed, they do not work properly. It has been over two years since they have been asked to make the necessary changes.
Need for fire-proof future
“Individual buildings in such crowded areas must have a sump and pump room in case of an emergency. Small retailers may claim that it is not feasible for them due to financial and space constraints. But, there is no excuse for the large retailers who have the resources and can not only cater to the needs of their building but also to others in the street when it comes to damage control in case of a fire,” said V Sivaramakrishnan, a fire consultant.
He said that shop owners increase the number of storeys or make internal changes to the lighting system
and AC capacity that leads to short circuits which set off fire. Sumit Khanna, a member of Beyond Carlton, a public initiative for fire safety, explains, “There are two kinds of markets — those located inside a building and those on the streets where the shops are adjacent to each other.
While shops in malls have some level of fire protection in terms of extinguishers, individual shops don’t. There is a danger of the fire spreading from one shop to the next, especially in commercial markets that sell textiles, electronics or any other combustible material.” (This is the first in our series on fire safety in the city)
Even after several warnings, there are over a lakh commercial units across Chennai that do not have a fire safety licence. In case of a fire, a majority of the buildings located in the commercial pockets of T Nagar, Purasawalkam and Broadway would turn into death traps for its occupants as fire safety is not on top of their priority list.