Many buildings in the T Nagar area continue to exist in violation of building norms despite even the HC’s intervention, say experts.

Tinderbox T-Nagar The Chennai Silks fire was a disaster waiting to happen
news Fire Wednesday, May 31, 2017 - 19:15

As firefighters struggled to control the massive blaze at the Chennai Silks showroom, over 12 hours after it broke out, questions are being raised as to whether this major accident could have been foreseen and prevented. After all, Chennai had a frighteningly clear example less than 10 years ago.

In 2008, superstore Saravana Stores and another adjacent building housing more than 80 shops on Ranganathan Street were engulfed in a blaze for more than nine hours. The loss of property was estimated at Rs 1.5 crore. Fortunately, at least 15 employees trapped on the fifth floor of Saravana Stores were rescued.

However, despite all the red flags this incident raised, it seems that little has changed in T Nagar, only making the Chennai Silks fire an accident waiting to happen.

After the Saravana Stores fire, the Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services conducted a fire safety audit in about 150 commercial buildings in T Nagar. It was then revealed that not one adhered to even the basic fire safety norms, reported Deccan Chronicle.

And this was not even the first such official finding. According to retired IAS officer MG Devasahayam, who was part of a Madras High Court-appointed monitoring committee for building violations, a 2006 HC-mandated survey of Ranganathan Street in T Nagar found close to 75 buildings there violating existing norms.

While approval had been given for a floor space index of 1.5, most of these buildings had gone up to 7.5-8. Similarly, while the height of buildings was restricted to two floors, most buildings had been built up to seven or eight floors. The road had also been encroached upon, reducing its width drastically from the mandated 60 feet. Further parking spaces in the basement were also converted into commercial space, and fire facilities were also lacking, explains Devasahayam.

“All the violations need to be demolished till the 2nd floor level. The process was started in 2007, but successive governments have passed ordinance after ordinance in support of the shops,” he alleges.

“This is a huge scam. The government has, on one side, been completely bought up by the T Nagar people,” says Devasahayam. Calling T Nagar a ‘tinderbox’, Devasahayam says that the gods have been kind, since the fire started in the early morning. “If it had happened during the day, imagine the casualties,” he exclaims.

The violation of fire safety norms has continued despite even the High Court intervening in the matter more than once, say members of the T Nagar Residents Welfare Association.

“These issues have existed for decades. We filed a PIL in court, following which the HC asked a monitoring committee from the fire department to look into the matter. The fire department conducted the audit and found several deviations there,” says Jayaraman, a member of the RWA.

According to reports, the monitoring committee found that the entrances to Usman Road on either side of Chennai Silks and to Ranganathan Street were far too narrow to allow hydraulic vehicles of the fire service to enter the area for rescue operations. Additionally, most buildings had completely violated the norm of providing a setback area of 7m.

Most of the buildings also did not have the mandated fire escape staircases on the exterior of the buildings. Even where such staircases existed, they were used for storing goods, blocking off access. And important fire-safety infrastructure like warning and alarm systems, automated sprinkler systems and so on were absent, defunct or not according to code.

The HC promptly took action, but the defaulting enterprises appealed to the Supreme Court, says Jayaraman. “In 2011, several buildings were sealed including Chennai Silks. But they went to the Supreme Court and got temporary relief. The case is still underway.”

“Meanwhile we live in fear that fires in these buildings that have flouted norms will damages our homes too. There are clear violations and the government is not acting on it,” he adds.

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