Cities across India are growing at exuberant rates. However, as we build new cities and expand old ones, we must not forget the necessary features that make up these urban spaces. Fire safety is crucial in urban and rural habitats, and there must be continued investments in equipment and infrastructure to guarantee the safety of our citizens. It is pivotal that fire safety is one of our topmost priorities across the country, especially in population dense urban agglomerations such as Mumbai, Delhi, and Bengaluru. As cities become even more crowded and their vertical growth is marked by buildings that continue to be in close corridor to one another, any neglect could result in deadly calamities if a fire were to break out. We must not wait for a disaster to happen in the future; instead, we must be proactive in the present.
In the past 12 months, Mumbai has faced many fire tragedies. In December of 2018, 14 lives were lost in the Kamala Mills fire. Another eight people died in the ESIC Kamgar Hospital fire a few days later. Many things went wrong during these fires: the restaurant did not have a hookah licenses, the fixed fire system was not operating, exits were not clearly marked, the hospital had failed its fire safety test, the sprinkler system was not operating and combustible materials caused the fires to burn faster. These horrific fires have stimulated conversation about fire safety issues not only across Mumbai, but India as a whole.
Fire safety is crucial in urban and rural habitats, and there must be continued investments in equipment and infrastructure to guarantee the safety of our citizens.
Mumbai holds the title of the world’s second most dense city and is home to the one of the largest slums in the world. Nearly 50% of the population of Mumbai live cramped in the slums found throughout the city. Due to the overcrowding in the slums and the extreme population density throughout Mumbai, emergency services have a challenging undertaking of navigating the streets. The fire brigade is not sufficiently prepared to serve those who live and work in slums due to a lack of appropriate equipment. A fire officer described how houses were not of adequate length to reach the center of slums and fire vehicles were unable to get to the center because of limited access. Slums are also often made up of flammable materials, which can easily start a domino effect and end in a catastrophic disaster. The situation is also grim when it comes to the increasing high-rise buildings that are dotting the city’s skyline. While buildings in the city are inching closer to the 100 floors mark, the tallest the ladders available with the Mumbai fire brigade can reach only up to 30 floors. Its existing pumps can project water only up to 30 feet, i.e. about nine to 10 floors. Given the poor track record of compliance with building and fire codes, any large-scale fire in any of these buildings could prove to be catastrophic.
As Mumbai continues to grow, its slums continue to swell and its buildings continue to get taller, the state and city governments must urgently begin to address these lacunae to better serve and protect the industrious citizens of India’s commercial capital.
From a national perspective, a study sponsored by the Ministry of Home Affairs reported that a minimum of 8,599 fire stations are needed in India; however, only 2,087 are in place. It was also outlined that India requires 559,681 more trained fire individuals, 221,411 firefighting equipment, and 9,337 firefighting vehicles and units. The lack of investment in fire safety resulted in 17,700 Indians lives lost due to accidental fires in 2015. As India’s population continues to increase, these issues will only heighten unless we create change and invest in the safety of the people of India today.
The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) has rules in place to protect its citizens, but if they are not enforced or if they have loopholes, there are serious ramifications that will land on the backs of the hardworking citizens of India. One of these rules being, “fire drills and evacuation drills shall be conducted regularly in consultation with the Mumbai Fire Brigade and log of the same shall be maintained.” However, the statement provides no clarification of the meaning “regular.” “Regular” could mean once a month or once every ten years, which is why it is very important to put detail into the guidelines. Another variant that needs to be addressed and adjusted in the fire safety guidelines is the fact that certain rules only apply to buildings and shops that can hold a certain capacity of people. Often, buildings or shops that hold less than 50 people do not have fire code restrictions. We must do everything in our power to ensure that buildings are up to code, and routinely checked at least once a year. The loopholes in guidelines should be closed, and the rules should be crystal clear and actively enforced by the city government.
Slums are also often made up of flammable materials, which can easily start a domino effect and end in a catastrophic disaster. The situation is also grim when it comes to the increasing high-rise buildings that are dotting the city’s skyline.
Mumbai is not the only city in the world facing similar issues. Rio de Janeiro has experienced almost identical fire safety issues. Rio de Janeiro, a populous city in the developing nation of Brazil, was victim to a fire that destroyed the 200-year old National Museum. Almost 20 million items in the museum were claimed by the flames, one of which was the remains of a 12,000 year old woman. Historical artifacts and priceless possessions are forever gone due to lack of mindfulness of at risk structures. Soon after the National Museum fire in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s prosecutor requested the closure of six national museums until they were up to fire-safety code. This request was granted and steps are being made to guarantee that Rio de Janeiro is protecting its vast amount of history and culture.
Rio de Janeiro has also initiated random fire safety checks across the city targeting local businesses. Over 120 venues were shut down in Rio de Janeiro alone because of failure to meet fire safety standards. Another fifty commercial sites received fines but were allowed to remain open, while another twenty received warnings. By taking these preventive measures, the fire services of Rio de Janeiro are taking steps to be proactive in terms of fire safety, which ultimately protects their citizens from danger. However, there is always room for improvement.
How can growing cities and countries improve in regards to fire safety and emergency relief? A policy should be written to address cities that are expected to grow significantly in size in the coming years. Through this legislation, cities should be required to reserve physical spaces for fire stations, fire hydrants, and fire lanes/parking spots. By making these changes, it would ensure that if a fire or a disaster situation were to happen, access would be readily available. Cities should also increase investments in fire safety. Unfortunately, the fire and disaster management budget for Mumbai has declined by 38% over three years to 2020. Nonetheless, there is value in investing in fire safety, especially in fire safety technology.
By 2050, almost 70% of the world’s population will live in cities. India and all countries around the world must see the importance of fire safety when building and extending cities. If not, we will be walking unprepared into a deadly inferno.
Sophia Ashebir is a research intern at ORF Mumbai.
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