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Playing with fire

We should definitely make it easier to do business in India but no ease should come at the cost of flouting safety regulations

Playing with fire
Age creeps up on you like a sly predator. It seems like yesterday that I was studying to be a journalist. In a couple of months from now, I would have completed 12 years in journalism and media. Over a decade of on-field experience leaves behind several indelible memories; stories of people and places, stories of history being made and hearts being broken. Stories that one excelled in as a journalist, stories that one broke ahead of others; and then there are stories that even years after they are done, come back to haunt.
Exactly six years ago, a tragedy struck Kolkata. A fire broke out in the basement of one of the city's most famous hospitals, AMRI. There were no emergency exits, making it tougher for evacuation and rescue of patients. Almost 90 patients, many in the ICU, died. The terrified shrieks of people who were suffocating in that gas chamber resonate in my ears even today. A few hours later, the main entrance gate of government-run SSKM Hospital, was full of dead bodies covered with sheets. The stench of the decomposing flesh, the wails of the bereaved relatives, the sight of the families left hopeless and distraught by lives snuffed out way before their time, can never be unseen again.
As 2017 was winding up, another fire killed 14 people at Mumbai's Kamala Mills Compound, one of the current hubs of corporates, media houses, and F&B in the city. The fire originated in a rooftop restobar and rapidly spread to the next one. Both restaurants had no working fire equipment and did not even have emergency exits. They had also used inflammable materials in the décor. In fact, the toilet where the 14 suffocated to death was illegally built!
These incidents set apart by six years are not accidents. Stampedes, buildings and bridges collapsing, are all tragedies that could have been averted. These are cases of blatant negligence and in many cases, corruption. Awarding fire clearances where there should be none, giving government permissions to business hubs which are hazardous, are all reminders that someone, somewhere has been a crook while others have looked the other way.
All around us, there are tinderboxes ready to blaze up. Delhi's Chandni Chowk, Hauz Khas Village, Munirka, and Shahpurjat, to name just a few; every mill that has been converted into an office and restaurant space in Mumbai, old Kolkata; all of these have one thing in common. Death can come suddenly and swiftly. To think that Mumbai's Kamala Mills has businesses worth thousands of crores operating out of a compound that is unsafe for its workers is shocking to me. Media houses that work out of such mills turn a blind eye. The fact that no one ever wonders about how openly fire safety has been flouted in almost every pub in Hauz Khas and even Khan Market, is unbelievable. These are places where a disaster is waiting to happen.
Our dereliction towards duty and being regulation-compliant is causing hundreds of innocent deaths in India. We should definitely make it easier to do business in India but no ease must come at the cost of flouting safety regulations. How many Uphaar Cinema-like incidents do we want? Jail the owners of the hospitals, pubs, cinema halls, all you want. But the government cannot shirk its own role in causing incidents like the Kamala Mills fire. If the businessmen flouted the law, the corrupt government authorities with their general lackadaisical attitude towards regular monitoring of safety rules, have aided and abetted them. And so has every one of us who never complain about the safety hazards at our favourite restaurant.
(The writer is a journalist and media entrepreneur. The views expressed are strictly personal.)
Shutapa Paul

Shutapa Paul

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