The tragic death of 27 people in a major fire in the Mundka building on Friday has underlined that the city authorities have learned little from similar incidents in the past that exposed the utter lack of safety mechanisms and the gaping holes in their implementation.
The Mundka building, according to an inquiry by the North MCD, had no sanctioned plan and was operating a factory without licence — same as the building in north Delhi’s Anaj Mandi area where a fire in 2019 killed 43 people.
Hundreds of such buildings still operate from congested quarters with civic, police and fire authorities struggling to curb them.
Two separate panels were formed after the Anaj Mandi fire to lay down an action plan to tackle the problem of illegal industrial activities going on from residential areas. The panels were formed after the National Human Rights Commission took suo motu cognizance of the matter.
The first one, a special task force, was formed by the ministry of housing and urban affairs (MoHUA). The second, an interdepartmental committee, was headed by the chief town planner of the South MCD. The committee submitted the action plan in 2020, and the STF gave its recommendations in 2021. Both, however, have not been implemented yet, a senior official said.
A municipal official, who was part of the committee, said that the remedial action plan included the identification of vulnerable areas and formulation of detailed disaster management plans which was to be implemented in some areas, and then enforced in the entire city. “In residential areas with dense population, we suggested setting up fire hydrant systems with common water tanks, the alteration of road widths at key intersection points to allow movement of fire tenders, and the urgent tackling of unauthorised constructions, among other measures,” the official said, requesting anonymity.
Jai Prakash, former mayor of the north corporation, said despite several fire accidents in the city, there has been no action. “No redevelopment work was carried out in Anaj Mandi. Making announcements about creating a world-class city should only after the agencies concerned have the city a safer place for its residents,” he added.
The Delhi Development Authority did not respond to queries on the implementation of the remedial action plan despite repeated attempts.
Meanwhile, an official from Delhi Fire Services, who asked not to be named, said that there are several areas in Delhi where even fire tenders cannot enter because of rampant unauthorised constructions. “Committees were formed after the Anaj Mandi and Arpit Palace Hotel fires, but nothing concrete happened, and ultimately the regulations were diluted,” the official said.
To be sure, in case of the Anaj Mandi fire, the probe report for fixing culpability of officials was never made public.
In the aftermath of the Arpit Palace Hotel fire, a series of stricter norms was announced by the government on May 27, 2019. However, four months later, the Delhi government’s urban development department issued an order to Delhi Fire Services and the civic bodies relaxing some of the norms based on representations of associations to the urban development minister.
The September order undersigned by the deputy director (local bodies) said: “Instead of imposing the condition that fire safety certificate may be granted only if the floors above 3rd floor are closed/sealed by way of brick wall, we may instead obtain an affidavit from the hotel owners that such spaces will not be used for anything which violates any of the clauses stipulated in earlier notification.”
Delhi government spokespersons did not respond to requests seeking comment.
Praveen Khandelwal, general secretary of Confederation of All India Traders said that the city needs to take a holistic view of the industrial sector to prevent such fires. “Along the lines of regularising unauthorised colonies, a scheme can be brought out to incentivise structural and building norms corrections in such industrial units. In many cases, faulty electricity meters and wires cause short circuits and must be overhauled. In case of industries operating on narrow streets, authorities should relocate them in open areas,” he added.