Kamala Mills fire to Chennai floods: Why India’s regulations aren’t working

Year after year, people are dying in incidents that are termed ‘accidents’ but are actually man-made disasters

Mumbai pub fire: How drunken stupor, selfie obsession delayed evacuation

India’s cities – big and small, in the north and south – are sitting around a bonfire of regulations, basic tenets of urban planning and precious human lives. The December Mumbai fire is the latest reminder. We haven’t learnt our lessons from the gruesome Uphaar Cinema fire that killed 59 people and seriously injured 103 people in the national capital in 1997. | Today’s Paper

Here are some of the major fire incidents that took place in the last 14 years. Some places that are frequent victims – temples and firecracker units in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, for example – don’t even come under the strict demographic definition of urban areas.

  • Carlton Towers, Bengaluru, 2010; nine dead, 70 injured.
  • SUM Hospital, Bhubaneswar, 2015; 22 dead, 120 injured.
  • Surya Sen street market, Kolkata, 2013; 19 dead, ten injured.
  • Amri (Dhakuria) Hospital, Kolkata, 2011; 73 dead.
  • The Park Street, Kolkata, 2010; 16 dead.
  • Kurla (West), Mumbai, 2015; eight dead.
  • Kumbakonam, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, 2004; 83 dead, 27 injured – all school children.
  • Srirangam, Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu, 2004; 57 dead, 50 injured.
  • Nand Nagri, east Delhi, 2011; 15 dead, 65 injured.
  • The Victoria Park, Meerut, 2006; 65 dead, 81 injured.
  • Paravur, Kollam, Kerala, 2016; 111 dead, 350 injured.
  • Mudalipatti, Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu, 2016; 38 dead, 33 injured.
  • Mudalipatti, Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu, 2012; 54 dead, 78 injured.
  • Khusropur, Patna, Bihar, 2005; 35 dead, 50 injured.

According to National Crime Records Bureau figures, 17,700 Indians died – 48 people every day – due to fire accidents in 2015. Of those who died, 62% were women. Maharashtra and Gujarat, our two most highly urbanised states, account for about 30% of the country’s fire accident deaths. There is a close correlation between deaths due to fire-related accidents and population density associated with urbanisation.

ALSO READ: Kamala Mills fire: Demolition at 314 sites, 7 hotels sealed in Mumbai

In cities after cities, towns after towns, year after year, Indians are getting killed and burnt in fire incidents. Technically speaking, these are not accidents; they are man-made disasters, manufactured by a mix of half-baked regulations and compromised enforcement machinery and powerful interest groups. They are actually planning-made problems.

This is a classic example of India’s ‘disposal problem’ (a phrase borrowed from historical American foreign policy). Let’s see the usefulness of this concept in our context.

The ‘disposal problem’ refers to how a well-entrenched people, practice or protocol (interest groups, professional cliques, sellers or buyers in a market place, rules, laws, standard operating procedures, institutional matrix, collective mores and folkways, etc.) can end up defeating the very purpose for which it was created in the first place. There is an element of “unintended consequence of purposive behaviour” (Robert K. Merton, 1996).

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