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The fires of hell

Many more lives might be tragically lost before we realise that there are no shortcuts to compliance with building norms that earmark public safety

The fires of hell

There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough, hew them as we will. We can be sure that some such consolation would be forthcoming for the survivor families of those who died in the so-called illegal factory carnage that happened in the country's capital, New Delhi. Rescue, even if timely, was not possible as access to the narrow lane was obstructed to the fire tenders. We are told by our brave and artificially concerned politicians, official voices and similar sympathisers that the factory was illegal, had many violations of the municipal and allied safety laws. We can draw our own conclusions that such illegal existence deserves death irrespective of the fact that many officials would have obtained gratification from the owners. No violation prospers without official connivance and concurrence. That is the law and no one can do anything about it.

Illegalities in our urban existence have thrived for years and years. The capital city is no exception to the massive neglect of civic duties by the enforcement authorities and compounded by the greed for real estate assets yielding prosperous living standards. Our land use policy must be the most ambiguous and convenient framework with near freedom from adherence. In every city, there is total neglect of building laws such as they are. There is merit in the argument that for the most part, the FAR rules and usages are outdated and we need a fresh look at prescribed densities and spatial developments.

What are we going to do with this vast, country-wide urban waiting to happen and happening disasters of one kind or another? Sure, as believers in the reincarnation theory given to us by our seers and sages, no one alive is willing to take a chance with getting another shot at life voluntarily. Yet, we continue to ignore all safety precautions and requirements as if there is a divine exemption ordained for a privileged few. Our big and complex problem is that our sources of livelihoods are intertwined with illegalities. And, this sits most heavily on the poor people. Not enough market places for the small vendor, not enough and affordable shelter spaces, not enough safe modes of transit for the poor and their children. Hence to survive, they exist in slums, they ply their trades in roadside vends, they access power and water illegally and they have no voice except at the time of voting when all manner of political parties will promise them 'heavenly abodes'. This promise is soon forgotten. But the administrative regime is compelled to overlook the laws as these vote banks have political insurance. We are in a no-win situation.

We will have to see many more Anaj Mandis, that is for sure. Upahar tragedy happened, Dabwali happened but we learn nothing. The greater tragedy is that these lives could have been saved. There was only human negligence common to all these tragedies. There is a continuing irrational belief that disasters and tragedies happen to other people and one is personally immune being a favoured child of God. It is a problem of attitudes as most of our fellow citizens are just not conscious of safety processes and the general belief that these are avoidable expenses. Therefore, the consequences of non-compliance have to be severe for the violator and the law enforcer. Failure to enforce and failure to comply have to be visited by a compelling penalty. It must be implemented without favour. I suspect that many more lives will be tragically lost before we come to believe that there are no short cuts to compliance with rules. Every such short cut is a wager against life and the loss is irreversible.

All said and done, we all will have to take the work of city management and administration very seriously. Half-hearted measures will not help and will only put at risk every development. In this very capital city of ours, there are places inhabited by the thousands, but no rescue operation is possible, should such a situation come to pass. Old Delhi, parts of New Delhi and much else that fall in between are living dangerously. We will have to invest in modern fire fighting equipment, we need to decentralise the locations of the fire service assistance. These costs have to be paid, even if there is no fire in the next ten years. These are in the nature of insurances. The need to do it all is now and not in the future. We do not know what will ignite a fire that will consume innocent lives in another part of this city. Living safely is a daily routine and not an occasional activity.

Views expressed are strictly personal

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