Fire Safety in Mumbai Buildings – An Object of Neglect and a Cause for Concern

Fire at Kamala Mills in Mumbai

Fire Safety is a growing concern in today’s buildings. Time and again the media reports of repeated fires in buildings throughout Mumbai and other cities. Such incidents of fire result in severe loss of property and in unfortunate cases, loss of lives as well.

While fire is one of the greatest scourges in urban areas, it’s destructive effect can be reduced or even avoided by adhering to sound fire safety principles. These include open spaces around buildings (to manoeuvre fire engines), fire fighting systems and regulation of building height. Strict implementation of these norms right at the planning and construction stage itself can heavily reduce the risk of fire and improve human safety.

It is needless to add that the most important aspects of fire safety come down to two factors – the mandatory 6 meter open space around buildings (for fire tender to move about) and the provision of mandatory fire escape staircases to facilitate timely evacuation in the event of fire breaking out.

Unfortunately it is a sad story that throughout India, law exists only on paper. The story is no different when it comes to fire safety considerations in urban planning. Again, Mumbai comes out as a prime example of a city where fire safety considerations routinely take a backseat and unscrupulous builders, in pursuit of pecuniary considerations, compromise with the life safety of the building residents.

DC Regulation 43 of the Development Control Regulations, 1991 governs fire safety provisions in buildings. DC Rule 43 states that fire safety measures in buildings shall be in accordance with Part IV of the National Building Code of India. One of the most important features of this provision is that it requires a minimum of 6 meters open space to be left around buildings so as to enable the fire engine to move around the building in the event of emergency.

However, despite the strict requirements of DC 43, violations are rampant. Pecuniary considerations lure builders to leave less than the required open spaces. Very often this space is divided into parking lots and sold off. When these violations come up before the Municipal Authorities, they are often ‘condoned’ upon payment of ‘premium’ – a paltry sum that pales into insignificance when lives of the residents are concerned.

In order to strictly enforce the law, it is important that Municipal Authorities stop granting relaxations to developers. DC Regulation 64 states that relaxations can only be granted to Developers so long as the health and life safety of residents are not affected. It further states that relaxation can only be given in respect of a certain dimension of the open space, not the quantum. This basically means that if owing to hardship (such as overcrowding in high-density housing), the required open space cannot be uniformly given, then the Chief Fire Officer (CFO) can permit the open space to be narrow at some point. However he cannot eliminate the requirement altogether by citing hardship as an excuse. Thus, only certain dimensions of the open spaces can be reduced citing hardship, and that too if justifiable reasons exist.

No builder can waive his open spaces by seeking relaxation. Unfortunately, corruption and nepotistic considerations ensure that law remains a paper tiger, much to the detriment of the building residents. Fire Officers seldom bring fire tenders into under-construction buildings and check if the vehicle can go around them using the mandatory open spaces. Illegal relaxations are accorded to builders under the guise of ‘hardship in planning’ and more than often, such open spaces are completely done away with. Such violations are common in projects being implemented in high-density housing schemes such as Slum Rehabilitation Projects.

Another area where fire safety laws are rampantly violated are in buildings having podium. The podium in a building is used to provide space for parking vehicles. DC Regulations 28, 29 and 30 of the Development Control Regulations clearly provide that the marginal open spaces (on the sides of a building) should be at the ground level and free of obstruction. Unfortunately, it is common practice among unscrupulous builders to extend the podium into the open space and then merge the remainder with the building setback at the top of the podium. Thus, open space which actually exists at the top of the podium is falsely shown as being at ground level, thereby misleading the Fire Safety Authorities and the innocent flat-buyers as a whole.

Cities are key centers for growth and progress of a nation and their proper planning is imperative to ensure that citizens have a verdant, safe and healthy environment to prosper in. Tragically, town planning and its key features – fire safety, recreational open spaces and floor-area ration norms – are rampantly overlooked and ignored by unscrupulous Developers in connivance with the Authorities. Bribery and corruption coupled with misleading advertisements from Developers ensure that these violations are ignored by the innocent flat-buyers, causing them to invest their hard-earned savings into a flat that is dangerous for habitation and potent fire risk.

Thus, with the statutory authorities failing in their duty, the onus must fall upon the general public to ensure that fire safety norms are complied with. Flat buyers can put their foot down and insist that fire safety norms are complied with at the time of booking. Further they can refrain to buy flats in projects where rampant compromises are made. This will place an economic imperative upon Developers to comply with law as the costs for non-compliance will increase. Finally it will also ensure that flat-buyers evaluate a project on substantive merits and not petty considerations. This will indeed go a long way in promoting the development of quality projects and create an economic incentive for Developers to follow the law, not violate it.

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