Public memory is notoriously short. So, we were naturally shocked when 10 patients died in a fire accident at a Covid Care Centre in Vijayawada on August 9. But just a few days earlier, a hospital fire in Ahmedabad had extinguished the lives of eight. We can go on and on, tracing the various fire tragedies in the country over the years.
Their frequent incidence, in fact, is alarming. As per NCRB data, 60,507 lives were lost in fire incidents between 2015 and 2018. In 2018 alone, 12,748 people died, which means on average, 35 Indians die in a fire every day. This was all reported and yet the response has, more often than not, been knee-jerk to every major fire mishap with no long-term vision to prevent their recurrence. There have been several studies too; one published in the BMJ Injury Prevention journal claimed one in five fire-related deaths in the world takes place in India.
In the Vijayawada case, the Care Centre was run in a hotel by a private hospital. Information trickling in from the investigation points to all-too-familiar causes: failure to obtain a No Objection Certificate from the fire services department, poor maintenance and absence of even a fire alarm. On top of this, it appears the hospital had been running the facility even before getting the permission to do so, not just in the ill-fated hotel but also in a few others.
The laundry list of its sins reportedly includes fleecing patients and refusing admissions to those covered under the state insurance scheme. So, who is culpable here? The primary responsibility, of course, rests with the hospital and hotel managements. But to stop at that is to let off the hook the government agencies concerned. Those who let such facilities be run with impunity are also equally culpable.
While making an example of the culprits, the focus should be on effective enforcement of the National Building Code and related laws. Since technology has advanced by leaps and bounds, making use of it to map and monitor buildings will surely help. But before anything, recognising that we have a problem is imperative.