A major fire raged through Mumbai's tony Kamla Mills Compound, killing 14 on the night of December 29. Photo: Courtesy Kanchan Srivastava

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The fatal fire that left 14 people dead and 20 injured in the heart of Mumbai on Friday night has once again underscored how establishments flout basic safety rules in a city which serves as India’s financial capital.

A survey carried out by the fire department of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation inspected 4,600 residential and commercial buildings over two years and found all of them flouting fire safety rules. The city is the backbone of India’s economy, houses the nation’s biggest stock markets and the Reserve Bank of India but has very poor infrastructure. Many commercial and recreational spots are virtual death traps. Clearly, a tragedy like the one on Friday was just waiting to happen.

The incident, in which 11 women and two US-based men were killed, happened at a popular pub and restaurant called Mojo’s Bistro and One Above in the commercial complex Kamala Mills at Lower Parel in Mumbai. On Friday, scores of families were packed into the restaurant, which became a death trap as the fire spread quickly from the pub below.

Mumbai firemen on the scene found that the pub did not follow standard safety norms. The fire escape exit was narrow and obstructed by illegal structures that also fed the fire. “The management did not make any arrangement for the safe exit of its customers. The manager and the staff of the pub ran away without helping those trapped in the blaze,” Mumbai police said.

The pub owner has been arrested and charged with culpable homicide. A probe has been ordered to determine the cause of the fire. Eye witnesses said that the fire spread quickly as the place was full of inflammable materials such as large curtains put up to avoid the cost of more permanent structures.

The pub also offered a traditional hookah, which is suspected to have started the fire. Hookah parlors are not allowed to serve alcohol, fire department sources told Asia Times. The pub had obtained the mandatory fire safety and building permissions from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) in October 2016.

“The BMC took legal action against the pub’s management in May this year for using the open space for commercial activities,” a BMC official said. “On August 2, a portion of the pub was razed for encroaching upon an adjoining open plot. They used this open space to illegally serve customers,” he said. The pub’s owners have denied the charges and said all documents were in order.

Unfortunately, such violations and tragedies are not new to Mumbai. A week ago, an illegal snack shop was gutted by a fire that killed 12 workers. In September, six people died in a building fire at Juhu, a western suburb of Mumbai. It was preceded by another tragedy in the Andheri suburb where nine people were killed in September 2016.

“The buildings were found to be flouting basic safety norms such as encroachment on common passages, blockage of staircases, dysfunctional fire-fighting systems while water from fire tanks was being used for domestic purposes,” said a senior officer.
The civic body has issued warnings to them and sought compliance while 10 buildings have been put under prosecution, fire official said. Some businesses have been accused of violating basic rules but they have escaped scrutiny by paying bribes, government sources allege.

After the Kamala Mills incident, Maharashtra’s Chief Minister, Devendra Fadnavis has ordered that all shops violating the norms must be demolished. Hinting at corruption in the BMC, Ashish Shelar, Mumbai chief of the Bhartiya Janta Party, alleged, “It seems civic officials are hand in gloves with the business owners. I observed that construction in the [Kamala Mills] compound exceeds the prescribed floor space index by 8-10 times. This is not possible unless a bribe has been paid, Shelar said. He blames the BMC, which is dominated by a local political party, the Shiv Sena. The Shiv Sena and the BJP are allies and were part of Prime Minister Modi’s union cabinet.

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