Smouldering questions on recurring fire tragedies in Delhi

From Uphaar to Mundka, the number and names of victims keep changing; what remains the same is lessons learnt — nil
(Photos | EPS/ Parveen Negi)
(Photos | EPS/ Parveen Negi)

A quarter of a century has passed, and grief and frustration continue to pain Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy. They have been fighting a seemingly unending legal battle to get justice for their two teenage children, who were among the victims of the Uphaar Cinema blaze in 1997 — one of the worst fire tragedies to take place in Delhi.

For the Krishnamoorthy family, as tough as the legal battle, has been the struggle to carry on with life, to wake up every morning and not see their kids around. Their daughter, Unnati, was 17 and son, Ujjwal, was 13 when they went for a 3o'clock screening of the movie Border at the Uphaar Cinema in Green Park. The fire caused deaths of 59 people due to asphyxiation while 103 were injured in the resulting stampede. Unnati and Ujjwal were among the dead.

“Our lives were drastically changed after that incident. But unfortunately, in the past so many years, the government of Delhi has failed to change the system in terms of safety. The city continues to reel under recurring fire incidents, killing so many innocents, followed by zero action by the government. Even the judiciary has failed,” Neelam said.

The victims and the families of the deceased later formed The Association of Victims of Uphaar Fire Tragedy (AVUT), which went to court with the landmark civil compensation case. Neelam said the Supreme Court decided a compensation amount of Rs 30 crore each to the victim’s families, and the sum was to be used to build a trauma centre by the Delhi government. But that has not seen the light of the day yet. “It has been seven years since this was decided, but no trauma centre has come up,” said Neelam.

Grief is still palpable in the voice of 77-year-old Naveen Sawhney, who has a hard time sharing the loss of her then 21-year-old daughter who had just graduated from the Jesus and Mary College and had gone for the movie at Uphaar.

“It has been 25 years and since then, no change has come about in terms of fire safety measures in Delhi. Nobody has learnt a lesson from the tragedies. There has been no harsh punishment for the owners. We lost our kids, but what did the government lose that it will go to any extent to avoid such tragedies?,” Sawhney said.

The Uphaar fire tragedy had exposed the poor safety standards at public places in Delhi. While the city was still recovering from this tragedy, another major fire broke out in Lal Kuan area of Old Delhi in 1999, claiming 57 lives.

Naadir Khan, still a resident of Lal Kuan, had lost his then 24-year-old elder brother, and three employees, who worked at their hardware store in the accident. Recalling the incident, Khan said, “It was the most devastating incident of my life, which snatched away my entire family. Within a year of my brother’s death, I lost my father, and soon after that, my mother expired. I was left alone, with no support -- family or financial. I had nothing to live for.”

Khan rued that in the past 23 years, no changes have been brought to the Lal Kuan area. While the case had reached the court, and a compensation amount of Rs 25,000 was declared, the victims have not got anything yet.

“We haven’t even learned the cause of the fire. The officials said it was caused by some chemical, but we don’t know any details. The factory owners were also set free after a minimal penalty was levied on them. How will the system change with such little restrictions?,” he asked.

Major fire incidents in Delhi

A fire in the transformer at Uphaar Cinema hall in Green Park killed 59 people.

A chemical factory at Lal Kuan in Old Delhi caught fire, killing 57 people.

14 killed and over 30 injured in a fire at a community function of eunuchs in Nand Nagri

2018 (January)
A fire in a factory in Bawana Industrial Area, which was manufacturing firecrackers without a licence, killed 17 workers

2018 (April)
Four members of a family, including two minors, killed in a fire at Kohat Enclave

2018 (November)
Four people killed and one injured in a blaze at a factory in Karol Bagh

2019 (February)
A fire caused by a short-circuit in the air conditioner in a room at Hotel Arpit Palace in Karol Bagh killed 17 people. The hotel did not have a fire NOC.

2019 (December)
43 labourers trapped inside a five-storey residential building, which had some illegal units running from its premises, were killed in a blaze in the wee hours at Old Delhi’s Anaj Mandi

2021 (June)
Six workers were killed in a fire at a shoe factory in west Delhi’s Udyog Nagar.

Since January, more than 10 fire incidents have taken place so far, of which one that occurred on March 12 in a factory in northeast Delhi’s Gokalpuri spread to the shanties nearby, killing seven people, including three minors and a pregnant woman. The Mundka fire this month killed 27 people.

Most vulnerable places in city

Nineteen years after the Supreme Court in the MC Mehta case of 2003 ordered action against illegal industrial units operating from residential areas, the units continue to grow unchecked in many parts of Delhi

Nehru Place complex: Nehru Place is considered to be a veritable fire-prone zone since emergency vehicles like fire tenders and ambulances cannot access the inner courts of the commercial complex. This was established during a mock drill ordered by the Delhi High Court and conducted on Sept. 21, 2021. There was one fire incident in August last year, wherein the firefighters had to struggle to reach the spot. Taking suo motu cognizance, the High Court had asked the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC), Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and the city police to file a status report on the matter, noting that the paved area is full of vendors which restricts the movement of fire tenders. It had directed that regular drives be conducted in the Nehru Place area by the SDMC and the Delhi police, with the assistance of the local SHO, so that the vendors, once removed, do not return. However, the situation remains the same.

Karol Bagh: Karol Bagh’s market is a busy hub, with shoppers thronging the jewellery shops in the area. It is a fire prone area because of the use of flames in soldering ornaments. The area comprises about 5,000 ornament-making units that employ over 20,000 workers. In 2018, a late-night fire had killed four people here. Following NGT orders, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) in 2019 had issued show-cause notices to all the units doing soldering work. However, the units are still functioning. Karol Bagh also houses factories being run in residential areas, which require licence from the civic agency.

Sadar Bazar: The congested lanes of Sadar Bazar, popular for crockery items, have witnessed a rampant growth of illegal construction activities. The situation is only getting worse in terms of rescue and accessibility. According to Atul Garg, the chief of Delhi Fire Services (DFS), Sadar Bazar, and for that matter, the entire Old Delhi, is the most congested part of Delhi. Garg said that Sadar Bazar market has very old structures, and the added worry is that the structures may fall anytime.

Paharganj: The capital’s hub for budget hotels for travelers from across the world, Paharganj tops the list of spots most vulnerable to fire accidents, according to the DFS. Officials say the main problem in rescue operations here is that fire tenders cannot traverse through the narrow lanes quickly enough.

Panchkuiyan Road furniture market: All furniture markets are vulnerable fire zones since there is no source of water around or inside these markets, and the shops are overloaded with flammable material like plastic and wood. “Fire extinguishers are mostly rendered useless in such places because no one knows how to operate them. Also, it is always difficult to take a fire tender inside these markets,” said DFS chief Atul Garg.

Rules to follow

Following are among the buildings covered under Rule 27 of Delhi Fire Service Rules 2010, which requires NOC

1. Residential buildings (other than hotels and guest houses) having height more than 15m or having ground plus four upper stories including mezzanine floor.

2. Hotels and guest houses having height over 12m having ground plus three upper stories including mezzanine

3. Educational buildings having height more than 9m or having ground plus two upper stories including mezzanine

4. Institutional buildings having height more than 9m or having ground plus two upper stories including mezzanine

5. All Assembly buildings.

6. Business buildings having height more than 15 meters or having ground plus four upper stories including mezzanine

7. Mercantile buildings having height more than 9 meters or having ground plus two upper stories including mezzanine

8. Industrial buildings having covered area on all floors more than 250 square meters.

9. Storage buildings having covered area on all floors more than 250 square meters.

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