Deadly Delhi blaze highlights India’s risk of fire

Dozens were killed when a fire broke out at a building without adequate exits or safety equipment

The deadly fire at a commercial building in New Delhi has once again highlighted India’s poor fire safety record, experts said.

A fire broke out in a five-storey business complex in Mundka, western Delhi, on Friday, killing 27 people. More are feared dead.

About 12 people were injured in the blaze, which started late in the afternoon.

Almost 70 people were trapped in the building, which had a single entry and exit and a fixed glass facade.

It was being used as a workplace and storage space for a dozen companies.

The fire started on the first floor. An electrical short circuit is believed to be the most likely cause of the fire.

One of the biggest units in the building was a CCTV camera manufacturing and assembly unit. The owners have charged with manslaughter.

More than 20 firefighters battled the blaze for hours.

Mobile video footage of the incident broadcast on television and shared on social media showed people breaking the glass panes and climbing down using ropes as plumes of smoke and flames rose from the building.

“We have recovered some human remains and are trying to identify them. It was earlier said that 32 people were missing but with recoveries of bodies, we are expecting the death toll to rise to 29 to 30,” Atul Garg, the Delhi Fire Service chief, told The National.

Police said only two out of the 27 bodies recovered had been identified as most were charred. Authorities planned to use DNA tests.

With the fire brought under control and rescue operations nearly over on Saturday, dozens of people waited anxiously outside Delhi’s Sanjay Gandhi Memorial Hospital for news of loved ones.

Relatives of one of the victims of a building fire in New Delhi mourn outside the morgue at Sanjay Gandhi Memorial Hospital on May 14, 2022. EPA

Ajit Tiwari was trying to locate his 21-year-old sister Monika, who had started working at the CCTV camera packaging unit in April.

“She received her first salary on Thursday. We got to know about the fire at 5pm, but had no idea that the blaze occurred at her office building. When she did not return home by 7pm, we started looking for her,” Mr Tiwari told reporters.

Pinku Kumar was furious as authorities were unable to give him any information about his sister-in-law as he shuttled between the hospital and the gutted building.

“She is nowhere to be found,” Mr Kumar said.

Police said their initial investigation revealed that the building did not possess a fire safety certificate or any firefighting equipment, required under government rules to operate a business complex.

India has a dismal record in fire safety and deadly incidents are common as implementation of the laws is lax or at times completely disregarded.

More than 43 workers were killed in 2019 after a fire broke out at a workshop in a congested part of Delhi, which followed the death of 17 guests at a hotel earlier that year.

The incidents prompted authorities to launch a safety audit at workplaces but blazes remain common.

Nearly 10,000 people were killed in fires across India in 2020, half of them in factory fires, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, making it one of the biggest public safety hazards in the country.

The problem is compounded by a critical shortfall of fire stations and professional firefighters. The Home Ministry told Parliament in 2017 that India had 3,000 fire stations when 8,500 were required.

The ministry said that India needed about half a million additional trained firefighters and 10,000 firefighting vehicles.

Experts, however, said the lax enforcement of laws and safety measures remains the single biggest reason for fires in the country.

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We have one of the best guidelines but it is our protocol that is toothless because they are hardly followed
K C Dominic, fire safety activist

India is undertaking a rapid expansion of cities and towns, where multistorey structures — both residential and commercial — operate without any official monitoring or safeguards such as fire exits and alarm systems.

K C Dominic, president of Fire and Securities Association of India, a non-profit organisation promoting fire safety, blamed the government’s lack of will.

“We have one of the best guidelines but it is our protocol that is toothless because they are hardly followed,” Mr Dominic told The National.

The national building code and local laws mandate that businesses and residential complexes must obtain fire safety certificates that are provided after inspection to ensure they have safeguards such as fire alarms and firefighting equipment.

But across the country such rules are violated either by acquiring certificates through bribes or completely disregarding the regulations, Mr Dominic said.

There is also a lack of public awareness about fire safety.

“Fire safety and disaster management should be part of our curriculum. The country needs fundamental changes to control fire accidents, such as liberating fire departments from the control of local municipal departments,” he said.

Updated: May 14, 2022, 5:54 PM