Since the dreadful Carlton Towers fire that took 9 lives, Beyond Carlton has been working with experts and the government to ensure fire safety in the state of Karnataka.

Beyond Carlton How a citizens initiative helped change fire safety laws in Karnataka
Delve Governance and policy Sunday, March 29, 2020 - 20:43

Ten years ago, tragedy struck the city of Bengaluru when a fire broke out in Carlton Towers on Old Airport Road on February 23, 2010. Nine people were killed and many more lives were impacted. Horrific visuals of the incident were shared on social media — employees working in the towers suffocating to death and some even jumping out of the windows to save their lives. However, from the tragedy, came hope.

Uday Vijayan, who lost his 23-year-old son in the incident, decided to reach out to others affected and thus, Beyond Carlton, a first of a kind initiative to ensure fire safety in Bengaluru, was born. The first thing on their agenda was to make sure such an incident never happens again.

“It was a shocking incident when I went to the fire department and saw that there were gaping holes within the fire department structure itself. Officials weren't empowered enough to go into buildings and inspect. And that sounded a little odd to me, because if they can't come and check, whether the building is fire-safe, who else can, nobody else is technically qualified,” Uday Carlton, Managing Trustee and President of Beyond Carlton, tells TNM. 

The group approached the Karnataka High Court in 2010 seeking stringent fire safety measures for all high rise buildings across Karnataka. Beyond Carlton’s Public Interest Litigation (PIL) showed how buildings needed a no-objection certificate before it was built, and after that, no checks were done officially.

Sumit Khanna, a fire expert and a member of the Executive Council of Beyond Carlton explained that this was dangerous since buildings go through a lot of wear and tear over time and those changes would never get factored in when the NOC was obtained.

Beyond Carlton had its first big victory in 2011 when the Karnataka High Court directed the state government to issue a notification to ensure that fire safety fitness tests are conducted on high rise buildings, 15 metres and above, every two years. However, the group wanted to go beyond this. Beyond Carlton then began work on a blueprint for all buildings, new and old, in Bengaluru. After months of consultations with the fire department as well as experts, Beyond Carlton released a five-year blueprint to ensure fire safety in Bengaluru.

“The blueprint talks about the retrofit of the fire protection systems, wherein the buildings can have a sprinkler fire protection system or any other fire protection still which can save lives of the people. There are things which can be done in year one, things which can be done in year two, three and four and five, which we would like to work along with the Karnataka fire service department so that things get implemented to improve the overall situation of the fire safety in the state of Karnataka,” Sumit said. 

Beyond Carlton has also been working with the government to get independent burn wards in the state. NCRB data shows that out of a total 12,748, fire accidents and deaths recorded in 2018, 50% of fatalities were women and more than commercial fires, more residential fires are reported. But is Karnataka equipped to deal with it?

“There are only two burn wards in Karnataka,” says journalist Vasanthi Hariprakash, who is also a member of the Executive Council of Beyond Carlton. “Private hospitals do not deal with fire victims or do not take them readily, maybe because of the medico-legal issues involved. There is also a huge cost of expenditure. So the two burns wards are woefully inadequate,” she adds.

With the government too welcoming their initiatives, Beyond Carlton has managed to change the way fire safety is seen in the state of Karnataka. However, for the nine families who lost their loved ones, justice has been elusive.

Lawyer and Beyond Carlton Executive Council member, advocate Ashok GV said that when the criminal case was first filed in the year 2010 by the government, the accused in the case went to the High Court under Section 482 of CrPC seeking a stay of the criminal case against them and the eventual quashing of the criminal case against them. The High Court had then issued a stay.

The lengthy judicial process, too, has disappointed the victims. Added to this, is the fact that such investigations also need an expert view and most public prosecutors, who usually represent the victims in such cases, cannot devote time to a single case.

“There is no dedicated exclusive and specialized agency to investigate such kinds of building hazards and so the investigation itself can sometimes get delayed. So I think it is just about ensuring that there is better coordination between the stakeholders in the system, making sure that they get the right kind of competent support and training that they require. And just ensuring that there is accountability when all these measures and support is given instead that are no outcomes,” advocate Ashok said.

However, despite it all, members of Beyond Carlton say their fight for a fire-proof Karnataka will continue. 

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