Need to Follow PM Modi’s 10 Pt Agenda for Disaster Risk Reduction
| Prof. Santosh Kumar, Professor & Head, NIDM, Delhi - 10 Dec 2019

Lessons From Delhi Fire Disaster

It Happened Again; Are We Heading Towards Risk Imperialism?

By Prof Santosh Kumar

National Institute of Disaster Management

Delhi saw a black Sunday morning of 8th December 2019 by losing nearly 50 precious lives. Such severe incidents of fire disaster could have been very well avoided or impact would have been reduced if the 10 point agenda for disaster risk reduction outlined by Prime Minister Narendra Modi three years ago had been implemented in true spirit by the states, as Disaster Management is the state subject.  

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had outlined this 10 point agenda for disaster risk reduction while inaugurating the Asian Ministerial conference in 2016. He had emphasized that “all development must imbibe the principle of risk management”.  He had also pointed out about building on local capacity and initiative. Specific actions have to be designed and implemented locally.

All deaths in 8th December Delhi Fire, which occurred, are due to human error. These deaths cannot be attributed to natural disasters. It is a hundred percent human error. An investigation is on. A judicial inquiry has been initiated for finding out the reasons behind the great Delhi Fire 2019.

The December 8 fire disaster, second-biggest fire in Delhi’s history, was almost similar to Karachi Fire, which had occurred in the garment industry in 2012 killing more than 350 workers. In Delhi fire, the blaze erupted around 5:30 a.m. in a multistory building used for making paper products and purses. The building in the Anaj Mandi neighborhood of northeastern New Delhi was packed with sleeping laborers when the fire broke out. Firefighters initially struggled to douse the flames because narrow lanes blocked access to the area, which is full of dilapidated buildings. Most of the victims were migrant workers from impoverished Bihar State in eastern India. They earned as little as 150 rupees (about $2.10) per day making handbags, caps and other garments.

Investigators blamed an electrical short-circuit for the fire. This is evident that how poorly safety standards are enforced in our country, which is linked to many deaths.

This was not the first time in Delhi, there have been devastating fires in Arpit Palace Hotel, Bawana Industrial Area, Kalindi Kunj, Chandni Chowk, Netaji Subhash Place to recount a few.

Delhi since 2002-03, is on average losing more than 350 lives approx due to fire every year. No of cases reported not less than 14000 cases of fire per year which has of late gone to have up to 27000 calls for fire. The majority of them are coming from residential and industrial areas.

In India, as many as 65 cases of Fire are reported that not only kill about 55 people but also cause damage to millions of Rupees Every Single Day.

It’s a known fact that fire, accidental or otherwise, is likely to cause 12 times more deaths than injuries as per the NCRB data available in the country. Fire outbreak is the third biggest risk to business continuity and operations, according to the India Risk Survey (IRS) 2018. In IRS 2016, the fire outbreak was ranked eighth biggest risk to businesses.

It has been observed that residential buildings are more likely to catch fire than factories manufacturing combustible items such as firecrackers and match-boxes. Incidents at residential buildings account for 29% of the total number of fires caused, while those at such factories account for just 1.42%.

Overall, India lost 37,213 people to fire accidents in 2014 and 2015, with most of them relating to those involving automobiles, including public service buses catching fire.

Fire outbreaks in government buildings also rose by 218 percent in the same period (35 vases in 2015 and 11 cases in 2014). In 2015, 7,493 cases of fire outbreaks were reported in residential buildings, a 100 percent increase from 2014 (3,736 cases). In fact, 42 percent of the deaths due to accidental fire in 2015 happened in residential buildings.

There was a 300 percent increase in cases of fire incidents in commercial buildings between 2014 (179 cases) and 2015 (716 cases).

Hence the sensitivity and vulnerability are increasing every year. One should not be mistaken only by recalling only Uphaar Cinema fire tragedy and recent Karol Bagh hotel fire as an isolated case of disasters.

The problem is, Risk is everywhere, and Preparedness is no-where. With every additional investment, risks are getting added as they are not adhering to the norms of risk resilience or reduction. Building bye-laws, clearances from fire departments, clearances of building plan its uses, etc. are getting violated every day. Population pressure in urban areas and its settlement, land use planning, etc have emerged as the biggest challenge. It seems that risks are spreading very fast against the capacity of the people and their governance.

Few questions are always alive as “dead bird in the frost”. Why such stories get repeated time and again? Why we are not learning from our past incidents? Whether such learnings are not good on the economy of scale? Why prevention doesn’t attract anyone? Why governance looks indifferent when it comes to enforcement of the law? Why disaster preparedness and risk reduction is not able to get prominence and become part of our culture? Do we have any accountability and process of punishment for such negligence? May be many more questions ……. will this keep continuing? Or we have some solutions if it is not “An act of God.”?

There was a big national debate which started soon after the incident of hospital fire of Delhi and Kolkata. But it fizzled out quickly as if it never happened at all. Similarly, another incident happened in the hotel at Karol Bagh, Delhi. All these disasters are reporting high casualties. But the longevity of the debate and concerns for disaster preparedness gets fizzles out soon not only it is happening amongst the government sectors but is equally true with all other stakeholders too. This is happening with most of the disasters.

The place where this disaster has occurred seems to be full of risk of a high order and there are many such areas are there in Delhi and for that matter most of the cities of India. Urban risks are growing. Regularization of illegal colonies has been the regular activities without even checking the quality of construction (even after the incident of Lalita Park of building collapse which killed nearly 100 people.) incident after incident has not been able to sensitize us to take tough decisions in the interest of the people. Chalta hai or It happens, the attitude needs to be revisited to digital thinking.

The situation is complex when it comes to changing the risk profile it is not impossible. There are few steps which could be taken immediately. We should not forget that Delhi is also in zone IV of the earthquake which means it is capable of having a bigger intensity of the earthquake. And, god forbid, when it will occur the kind of devastation in such a fragile structure is unthinkable.

We need to expand the community-based efforts and support communities to identify local risk reduction measures and implement them. These have to be taken with all our sincerity, commitment, and vigor if we wish to avoid such incidences in the future.

In Gujarat, after the earthquake of 2001, Govt could rebuild the four towns-Anjar, Bhuj, Bachhao, and Raparby decongesting and using land use planning, using new earthquake-resistant technology, etc. Since Delhi also falls in zone IV earthquake, we need to look at our preparedness keeping multi-hazard capacity building in mind. And the same is true for other cities too.

In the light of above what actually we may take some preventive steps such as,

i)Disaster risk auditing of the areas and zones should be initiated on fast track, ii) Sensitization of communities and RWA should be taken as on priority for building Mohalla wise/ward wise capacity’, iii)Strict Regulation and enforcement of hazardous activities in the residential areas, iv)Creation of Fireline in the narrow street and high building density areas either by demolition of required building or creating fireproofing, v)Provision of Insurance for the workers by the employer employed in the hazardous area vi)Setting up of system at the DDMA and SDMA levels for monitoring of risks and preparedness, Vii) Possible reallocation should be done where risk is very high, viii)Stringent norms of safety be enforced for regularization of illegal colonies. ix)Pre-disaster investment for risk management such as fire alarm system should be installed in such locations, x) Decongestion of such residential areas by making provision for a separate residential /hostel accommodation for migrant worker and are properly managed commuting system to the pace of work would be workable. xi)Last but not the least, instead of uniform housing taxation, high/low tax housing should be designed for highly vulnerable areas, x)Volunteers /private sector/traders/manufacturer and private security guards to be sensitized and given special skills for responding such incidents.

For reducing the impact of fire, there is also need to strengthen firefighting system both from inside the building and outside the building by providing minimum number and size of staircase, exit corridors and Refuge areas, Using Fire-resistant construction materials, well ventilated / pressurized / smoke extracted staircases, properly designed and routed Electrical, Plumbing and Gas services, install fire alarm and fire fighting equipment such as Fire hydrant, fireball, Fire escape (Exit) route clearly defined.

To conclude, In the wake of such disasters, this can be said that we are not risk-sensitive and hence we are losing preventable lives and property on a regular basis. Institutions made for risk governance are running without sufficient empowerment and teeth. Day to day governance is blissfully ignorant about the risks which have already spread its wings. Risk is gradually enveloping our in-built environment as if it is leading towards risk imperialism. If we wish to break the vicious cycle, we need to introspect and revisit our initiatives of development. There is an urgent need for moving out from risk blind or risk ignorant development to risk-aware or risk-sensitive by all the stakeholders.

Prof. Santosh Kumar, Ph.D., is Professor & Head of Governance, Policy Planning & Inclusive DRR, National Institute of Disaster Management, under the Ministry of Home Affairs, Govt. of India; Formerly, he was Director, SAARC Disaster Management Centre; Executive Director, (I/C) NIDM, MHA; Disaster Management Specialist, The World Bank; Professor & Head, Centre for Disaster Management, HCM RIPA, Jaipur, and Deputy Director, Research, UP Academy of Administration, Nainital. https://bit.ly/2KRPQRd Contact- profsantosh@gmail.com

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