Why is Delhi burning? With 400 fires a year, city has turned into hotbed of infernos

A fragile civic system and multiplicity of authority, coupled with venality and greed, paint a very sordid picture
54 cases of factory fires were reported in Delhi in January 2024 alone
54 cases of factory fires were reported in Delhi in January 2024 alone(Photo | Express)

India’s historic capital comes in various shapes and sizes. One is the much-maligned Lutyen’s Delhi – leafy, green, elegant, quiet, armed architecturally with European aesthetics, where the capital’s super elite lives in splendid isolation. This comes under the New Delhi Municipal Corporation or the NDMC that caters to the endless demands of a select few.

The other is where the hoi polloi lives – ill planned, architecturally an eyesore, overcrowded, ugly and unsafe. Coming under the aegis of the vast, bulky and mismanaged Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), it comprises the private colonies of Delhi, where legal and illegal settlements and unauthorised factories in their thousands, exist cheek by jowl.

This second category is too big to be accommodated under one sub-set. While south Delhi can boast of elegant high-end and upmarket colonies, a vast majority of settlements in west, north and east Delhi are mere apologies for residential housing. Here is where the lower middle class, middle class, the small shopkeeper and small factory owner reside, and it is here that danger lurks, constantly – danger of a blaze that can snuff out any human life, illegal construction or inflammable object that comes in its way.

On February 23, two children and a man were rescued from a four-storey building in Mohan Garden area of the city, after a fire broke out in their house around 10 am in the morning. Six fire tenders and at least 20 firefighters were deployed to douse the blaze and carry out rescue operations.

In a scary video released by the fire department, one fireman is seen rescuing a five-year-old boy, by climbing down a long ladder with the child on his back from the top floor where at least four adults were seen standing in the balcony. In another viral clip, a girl is seen climbing down from the second floor using the same ladder. Another child and a woman were seen standing on the balcony of the second floor. Providentially, there were no casualties.

In the last one month, this is the fourth incident of residential house fire in the city. In two other mishaps in Mansarovar Park and Shahdara a couple of weeks ago, five people were charred to death.

54 cases of factory fires were reported in Delhi in January 2024 alone
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Bigger fire hazards than residential buildings are factories, which operate illegally out of house and flats without licenses, no-objection certificates (NOCs) or any proper regularization. According to fire department estimates, in the last two years, there have been 800 fire incidents in unauthorised factories in Delhi.

Such is the level of callous neglect, official apathy, individual greed and venality that 54 cases of factory fires were reported in January 2024 alone!

Officials admit that no corrective measures have been taken despite small and big infernos. Many of these factories operate without a NOC and collude with authorities. Fire department data reveals around 400 fire incidents annually.

Take the case of the Alipur fire earlier this month, as a case in point. An inferno that broke out in a building that housed an illegal paint manufacturing factory in Nehru Enclave near Alipur in outer Delhi, claimed 11 lives. The blaze quickly intensified owing to the inflammable material stored inside and outside the factory — a single-storey building — before spreading to at least 15 houses and shops within a 50-feet radius. The initial fire encountered around 50 drums of inflammable liquid in the paint factory, subsequently leading to a series of explosions that lasted around half an hour.

The case is one of several recent instances of a unit operating in perilous conditions, eventually leading to a fire. The fire department mandates fire certificates for factories, but violations are commonplace. Most factories operate out of residential units, which don’t meet safety standards for industrial activity.

In January this year, four people perished in a fire at a rubber making unit in Shahdara. Same problem, same result – investigators found that the single entry and exit had been blocked leading to casualties.

The list is long and gruesome. In the last quarter of a century, many such fires have rocked the capital, but the politicians’ lust for regularizing half-baked colonies, which lack basic safety and life saving measures, and the propensity of civil staff to play along for pecuniary benefits, is playing havoc with the lives of the common man.

54 cases of factory fires were reported in Delhi in January 2024 alone
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Sample the following:

In May 2022, 37 perished in a major fire in Delhi’s Mundka area.

In December 2019, a fire at a factory in Anaj Mandi area claimed 43 lives.

In February that year, a fire at Karol Bagh’s Hotel Arpit Palace caused 17 deaths.

The point to ask is this: why can’t there be a check on mushrooming of illegal factories, congested roads, and unauthorised colonies?

The one definite answer is the multiplicity of authorities to check on commercial activities in Delhi, with no single point of reference. One senior official I spoke to said that Delhi’s `peculiar’ situation does not help. Land-owning authorities and the licensing authorities, often overlook fire safety requirements while handing over licenses to operate. While the fire department hands out fire safety certificates for all buildings, it is the responsibility of the land-owning agencies, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), to inform the fire department when a new building is under construction. The fire department’s intervention only becomes necessary when a NOC for fire safety is sought from them.

For instance, in the case of a hospital, it is the responsibility of the licensing authority, the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) to check if the hospital is operating with all necessary safety parameters. If the fire department is not informed about such lapses, the latter does not have the authority to randomly go inside a hospital and check for fire safety standards.

Similarly, for schools it is the education department and for factories and commercial buildings it is the Delhi police and the Municipal Corporations that are responsible for checking whether all parameters are followed or not.

In other words, the buck does not stop at one single point.

It is hardly a state secret that many hospitals and schools in Delhi lack fire safety standards. Much worse is the condition of more than 50% of the commercial establishments in Delhi, which are operating even without a fire safety certificate. These include restaurants, shops and rapidly mushrooming factories that have been growing illegally in Delhi’s residential colonies.

When an inferno breaks out, most illegal industrial units are situated in congested residential colonies and there have been occasions when it has become a problem for fire tenders to reach the affected spots.

It does not help that Delhi roads are congested. In the Mundka May 2022 fire, which claimed 37 lives, fire department’s tenders got stuck in traffic as the Delhi Police had barricaded the road and vehicular traffic was stopped, leading to pile up of vehicles on the road and the road leading to that building was quite narrow.

On balance, it would be fair to say that one is safe only where there is no fire. In a blaze, other than providence, it would be unrealistic to expect help from any other quarter.

(Ranjit Bhushan is a senior journalist. These are the writer's views.)

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