Fire exits are often blocked with cardboard boxes and sometimes they are even locked.
Fire accident by Sylvain Pedneault via Wikimedia Commons

Every year India loses over 25,000 people to fire accidents in the country.  As per National Crime Records Bureau data, there were 237 fire deaths in Karnataka in 2013, which is about 6% of the total fire-related deaths in the State.

Recently, the Karnataka High Court passed strictures and directed the Fire and Safety authorities to ensure implementation of notification issued on July 7, 2011 to avoid fire hazards. The division bench of Acting Chief Justice, Subhro Kamal Mukherjee and Justice BV Nagarathna also directed joint inspection by authorities to check if the fire safety norms are being implemented. 

The  New  Indian Express quoted Justice B V Nagarathna saying,  "I have seen a mall where the fire exit is locked. If a fire mishap occurs, where do we find the key? Is BBMP inspecting? Please go these malls and check." She demanded the fire exits to be opened in the morning and shut when the mall is closed. 

The judge was angry because Beyond Carlton, an organisation working toward fire safety by those affected by the 2010 Carlton Tower fire in Bengaluru, brought to the notice of the court the poor implementation of fire-safety norms.

Uday Vijayan, President of Beyond Carlton, says, "There is an imbalance between the increase in urbanization and the quality of civic and social infrastructure in India.”

A gazette notification released by the Karnataka Home Department in the year 2011 details the following measures for ensuring fire safety in high rise buildings. The release of the notification in 2011 put a lot of pressure on the fire department to check for violations, but it has not translated into action on the ground, he says. 

The guidelines listed in the notification are quite specific.

One, the issue of occupancy certificate by the BBMP should be only after the No Objection Certificate is issued by the fire and emergency services department following a thorough inspection of the premises. 

Two, all fire safety measures should comply with Zonal Regulations and National Building Code. 

Three, existing buildings should also get occupancy certificates after putting in place the required fire safety measures and getting clearance by the Fire and Emergency Services Department.

 Four, periodic renewal of the Occupancy Certificate must be carried out after detailed inspection.

Five, with regard to the functioning of the fire safety devices, periodical inspections should be conducted to check the working of the devices. 

 Six, in case of violations, Fire and Emergency Services Department may use their powers for filing criminal cases against owners, occupiers and promoters of the building under the Karnataka Fire Services Act, 1964.

But very few among these guidelines are being followed, according to Vijayan.

"Violations of the fire safety measures differ from building to building. A fire exit door should always be open and free of obstacles, so that during accidents people can easily access and move out to the open.  But in India, there are high chances that the fire exit door is blocked with old boxes,” he says.

“Similarly fire-extinguishers in some commercial complexes and apartments complexes are well past their expiry date and are merely showpieces. Some places even lack signage,” he adds.

Bengaluru is grossly short with respect to infrastructure. The city has only 19 fire stations where as it needs 56. Vijayan, in his letter to the Members of Parliament representing Bengaluru, has chalked out an estimate of the investment that would be needed. "The additional 37 fire stations and physical assets will need Rs 450 crores excluding the routine expenses for maintenance. The operational expenses of all 56 fire stations would be Rs 145 crores per year." he writes in the letter. 

He also says that violations of these rules has resulted in old buildings continuing to be potential tinder boxes and the new buildings which come up not caring to invest adequately in fire safety measures.

"80% fire accidents are caused due to short-circuits. Old buildings are more vulnerable to fire accidents as people don't maintain the electrical connections in their houses. Similarly, there is a huge challenge with old Government buildings. None of them will even pass the test. We could give up on the old buildings that fail the fire safety test. But, at some point Beyond Carlton would take up the challenge of making old buildings fire-safe." he told The News Minute

He also adds that it is up to the citizens to insist on better safety standards.

"There are a fair number of people who don't follow the fire safety which is because of the over-arching Indian attitude toward public safety in the country. A simple example can be, how a person puts on his helmet the moment he sees a cop and removes it as soon as the cop is out of his way," he says, “we cannot have the same attitude towards fire-safety.”