A raging fire destroyed two major restaurants in Mumbai and killed 14 people on December 29, 2017. Photo: Poonam Burde / via Reuters

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The illegal use of hookahs in a plush Mumbai restaurant is the prime cause of a fire last week that killed 14 people, a report on the tragedy says. The report to city authorities, accessed by Asia Times, clearly blames Mojo’s Bistro restaurant for providing hookahs to its customers without a license.

Mumbai, which serves as India’s financial capital, also has an active nightlife. A lot of old mills have been demolished and turned into plush restaurants in the last eight years.

Mojo’s Bistro and the adjacent restaurant 1Above, owned by the same group, were in the upmarket Kamala Mills Compound, which  also houses several prominent TV news channels. However, fire safety was never a priority in these new buildings, which led to the massive fire on December 29.

The 15-page probe report was submitted to Mumbai Municipal Commissioner Ajoy Mehta on Friday. Asia Times has a copy of the report, which contains the accounts of 14 witnesses and claims to have video evidence of the sequence of events.

“The fire spread from Mojo’s Bistro to the adjacent restaurant 1Above quickly due to [the] presence of combustible materials all around, and their guests died due to asphyxiation in the washroom after they failed to escape due to [a] blocked emergency exit,” the report says.

The probe found that both these places were offering services such as liquor and hookah smoking without a license. As a result, they also failed to put in place mandatory safety precautions. Mojo’s Bistro did not have any of the three required licenses, while 1Above had only a food license from the city’s municipal corporation.

It has also emerged that 1Above didn’t have approval from the fire department to run a restaurant on the rooftop. The previous approval given to both establishments was revoked recently because of their lack of compliance with regulations.

“Both the restaurants were running illegal hookah bars. Besides, fire tricks or flame cocktails were being performed by the bartenders at Mojo’s Bistro and [the] firefighting system of the building was dysfunctional,” the Mumbai fire department’s report said.

The findings also expose serious administrative lapses at various levels. However, the police have only arrested people from the management of the two restaurants and have not taken any action against erring civic officials so far. This, said sources, indicates the possibility of corruption and political influence in running illegal businesses in the heart of the city.

The Kamala Mills Compound at Parel, an erstwhile textile mill, now contains the headquarters of many leading media houses. The compound has more than three dozen restaurants and pubs, mostly running without permission from the authorities.

The probe notes that “the fire started during preparation of [a] hookah at Mojo’s Bistro possibly due to a pedestal fan and coal sigri [holder] being used to fan and burn charcoal. Since the bar wasn’t covered from above and had fewer guests, they escaped easily.” It also points out that “1Above had illegally erected a shed made from combustible materials such as tarpaulin and bamboo. It was packed at that time, hence the loss of many lives.”

In its earlier report Asia Times pointed out that the illegal sale of hookah smokes was the prime suspect. The report has now confirmed this to be true.

The probe also found that the emergency exit was blocked, preventing people from escaping the spreading fire. “The security personnel should have guided the trapped people, which could have saved people. [It] seems that even the security personnel were not aware of [the] emergency escape as one of the victim[s] is [a] bouncer who died along with the [others] who [sought] refuge in a nearby toilet,” the report says. It is unclear which of the two restaurants blocked the passageway.

The report also castigates the restaurant management for failing to call emergency services on time. “When the fire occurred not a single management or staff personnel from Mojo Bistro or 1Above intimated the fire brigade or public in the building,” it says, adding that notification of the fire department was delayed “and was received through the security guard.”

The management of the two restaurants have not issued any official reaction to the findings of the report. But the strong suspicion is that collusion of corrupt officials and a callous restaurant management led to the loss of lives that could have been easily prevented.

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