A major fire at a rooftop restaurant in a four-storey building in Mumbai snuffed out lives of 14 people. Most of the victims were part of a group that had come to the restaurant for celebrations of a young woman’s birthday. The total lack of fire safety at the restaurant turned the celebrations into a tragedy. Though restaurants in Mumbai are required to be fire compliant, this particular one and a bistro close by did not have firefighting equipment. The restaurant staff made good their escape, rather than helping their clients out. Doctors who conducted postmortem on the bodies of the victims said all the people died due to asphyxia. Following the tragedy concerns have been raised over fire safety norms in Mumbai’s commercial hubs. According to the Mumbai fire chief, neither of the restaurants had an emergency exit, which led to over 200 people getting trapped inside. They did not have functional fire safety equipment. And they used tarpaulin sheets and artificial flowers for decoration that aggravated the fire.
The Maharashtra government has promised stringent action against those responsible for tragic incident. Following Friday’s tragedy, scores of illegal restaurants and extensions to legal restaurants have been pulled down by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). The authorities act against illegalities only when tragedies take place. Although the government and BMC authorities have promised action against those responsible for the tragedy, it remains to be seen whether any action would be taken against the BMC and the government officers who did not act on complaints against illegal structures in the restaurant. Had they pulled down the illegal structures, the tragedy would not have occurred. Both the restaurants had been served three notices each for fire safety violations in recent months and even taken to court. However, they continued with their illegal structures. It is evident that the flames spread quickly because of bamboo and other flammable material used by the restaurant and the bistro. The owners of the restaurant have tried to wash their hands off by claiming that their premises were inspected by officials concerned and that they have the requisite permissions.
It is strange to note that the BMC had proposed to change its policy on allowing rooftop restaurants. The proposal is aimed at regularising the current illegal outlets operating on terraces across the city and allowing the terrace area in commercial mall buildings to be used as a service area with a no objection certificate from the chief fire officer. The illegalities of the two restaurants where the tragedy took place and hundreds of others would have been regularized under this changed policy. It remains to be seen whether the BMC goes ahead with the proposal or scraps it. It is strange to note that the BMC officials sprung into action and could find out 314 illegalities overnight within hours of launching a drive against illegalities. That they could find the illegalities within a short time is indicative of the fact that they were aware about them but had failed to act because of various reasons including the political patronage enjoyed by their owners. Action by the civic officials against illegalities should have been taken in a regular manner. The officials should not have waited for a tragedy to occur.
The incident at the rooftop restaurant in Mumbai should serve as an eye opener for Goa’s fire department in particular and the Goa government in particular. Goa is a tourist state and attracts thousands of tourists every day. Goan families also go for eating out. Hundreds of restaurants have been there in the state for years and hundreds have sprung up. Most of them do not have emergency exits or adequate or functional fire fighting equipment. They have made additions to the permitted capacities to cater to growing clientele. It is time that the fire department and other concerned agencies take stock of the illegal structures and remove them in order to prevent tragedies like the one that took place in Mumbai. Since restaurants with open flames, hot equipment, electrical connections, cooking oils, cleaning chemicals and paper products have all the ingredients for a fire to flame out of control, it is necessary that the authorities make it mandatory for the owners to have fire preventive measures in place like installation of automatic fire-suppression system in the kitchen besides keeping portable fire extinguishers as backup. Every restaurant should be made to display emergency exit plans and designate one of the staff as evacuation manager in cases of emergencies. The staff of restaurants should be trained in carrying out evacuation as planned and handling the fire fighting equipment in cases of emergencies.