No fire exits in Delhi

Bad urban planning and a corrupt administration means fires will continue to claim lives in Delhi

Published: Wednesday 30 June 1999

Summer in Delhi is the season of fires. With every passing summer, the incidence of fires has only increased. The growing list of victims and extent of damage wreaked has ensured that such outbreaks are now accorded front page coverage in most dailies -- sometimes even in the event of a minor blaze. This is not due to a lack of political news, but because fires in the capital are fast assuming the proportion of natural disasters in respect to the loss of human lives and magnitude of destruction. On May 31, a godown located in the Lal Kuan area of the Walled City of Delhi caught fire, killing 48 people. Most of the 65 people injured suffered over 70 per cent burn injuries (see ' Fire tragedy ', p16). Two years ago, a fire in a cinema hall killed over 60 people during the same time of the year. There is hardly a slum cluster in the capital that has not suffered due to a conflagration.

Why is the incidence of fires on the rise in the capital? Government officials are quick to point out that the illegal electricity connections put extra load on power lines, leading to short-circuits. In case of the fire in Lal Kuan, the godown was illegally storing chemicals and inflammable material in a congested residential area. Newspaper reports in the aftermath of the tragedy have identified many business premises where such illegal activities are being carried out in Delhi. Today, nobody in Delhi knows what is stored in the neighbourhood. Lax regulations mean that dangerous chemicals may be stored in the neighbouring shop. Who knows when it might blow up.

This clearly points out to two problems, both related to governance. First, the government does not have a clue about managing the growing population, and to plan a city that can accommodate the inhabitants and the industries without endangering public health. We have seen this in the case of the polluting industrial units of Delhi, which were allowed to pollute the city for decades until the Supreme Court ordered their relocation. Second, the fires reflect the extent of corruption in the administration. It would be nave to believe that government officials are unaware of illegal connections or unauthorised factories. All it takes for those who want to conduct any illegal activity, is to dole out regular bribes to the inspectors. Unless the government addresses these questions, such fires will keep killing.

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