Negligence and corruption at the heart of Mumbai's deadly fire

Unsafe buildings in the Kamala Mills complex to be demolished: minister

REFILE - CORRECTING DATE Friends of a victim killed in a fire at a restaurant wait at a hospital in Mumbai, India, December 29, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
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A deadly fire in a rooftop restaurant in Mumbai, which broke out early on Friday morning and killed 14 people, has drawn fresh attention to the failures of planning in one of the city’s busiest upmarket commercial districts.

Lower Parel, lying roughly a dozen kilometers north of Mumbai’s slender peninsular tip, was once home to numerous cotton mills — large factories that had, in the 19th century, exported so much cloth to the UK and other parts of the world that the city came to be known as the Manchester of the East.

After the Second World War, however, the mills started to decline. Textile manufacturing lost its sheen, and “mill owners began to siphon funds from their textile mills to other, more profitable activities,” the historian Shekhar Krishnan wrote in 2000, about Lower Parel’s transformation. The mills were hit by labour strikes, Mr Krishnan added, and the owners showed no interest in modernising their facilities.

In 1991, the government began to relax the rules that governed the redevelopment of these properties. Mill owners could now sell their land; developers were permitted to build condominiums, and office towers, or to install malls, restaurants and boutiques within the shells of the old mill buildings.

Among these was 1Above, the restaurant in the Kamala Mills complex where the fire began, which had a roof made of flammable plastic and bamboo. At least 21 people were injured severely, and more than 50 were admitted to hospitals in the area to be treated for smoke inhalation or minor wounds.

Kamala Mills, spread over 37 acres of land, is “bursting at the seams” with restaurants, the complex’s own web site boasts. At least 30 restaurants and bars function within the complex — some grand and prestigious like Bombay Canteen, others smaller and quirkier, like Grandmama’s Cafe.

“Everyone knows the situation in the Kamala Mills compound,” Rais Shaikh, a councilor in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) said on Friday night, referring to its crowded occupancy.

Five BMC officers in charge of safety have been suspended in the wake of the fire. Devendra Fadnavis, the chief minister of Maharashtra, ordered the BMC’s commissioner to conduct an inquiry into the incident.

“The owners will face criminal action as their negligence has caused death of these people,” Mr Fadnavis said. “If it is found there was willful negligent behavior by [BMC officials] in granting permissions, criminal action will be taken against them as well.” A safety audit of “all such structures” in mill complexes will be conducted, he promised, and illegal or unsafe structures would be demolished “on a war footing.”


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But more than negligence, Lower Parel’s dangerous development — and even the fire at 1Above — is symptomatic of corruption and greed on the part of real-estate developers and city officials.

Civic inspectors sanction building plans in return for bribes, even if the plans are inadequate in their safety norms, said Dilip Shah, a real estate analyst in Mumbai.

“This way, developers slip poor quality material or bad plans past the authority, he said. “Again, when owners of buildings want to modify their structures illegally, they give bribes to the inspectors to get away with it.”

The original plans for developing Lower Parel, drawn up by the architect Charles Correa, called for one-third of mill land to be devoted to public housing, where many of the neighbourhood’s poorer residents could continue to live. Another third was earmarked for parks, civic facilities, and open space. The final third would be given over to commercial developments.

In 2001, however, the government changed its own rules, under pressure from real-estate developers. Correa’s plan by thirds was abandoned; instead, seven-eighths of the 400-acre space was allocated to lucrative commercial projects.

The promised public housing never materialised. "So many poor people who lived in this area got shunted out," Leena Joshi, a scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, told The National. They were moved, she said, into slums or cheap and dangerous tenements further north.

The city also failed to spend money on infrastructure to support these new office blocks and shopping complexes. The roads and bridges remain narrow and crowded; every evening, they teem with vehicles that are either leaving the area for the day or arriving for an evening of recreation.

The repurposed mill complexes are crowded with people. The lanes through them are narrow; Jaya Bachchan, a member of parliament, said on Friday that Kamala Mills reminded her of a bhool bulaiya, a maze. Old buildings are not always updated to meet modern safety and design regulations. Sanjay Nirupam, the Mumbai head of the opposition Congress party, pointed out that 1Above had just one narrow emergency exit.

The BMC had served a notice to 1Above for using its terrace as a restaurant-bar area, even though it didn’t have a license to do so. An unnamed official told the Indian Express newspaper that 1Above had also allowed patrons to smoke on its roof, even though smoking isn’t permitted in public spaces in India.

Police officials have said that 1Above did not have the requisite fire-fighting equipment. The restaurant’s owners, however, claimed in a statement on Friday that all its fire safety equipment and licenses were in place, and that it trained its staff every quarter to handle fire emergencies.