Author : Ramanath Jha

Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Feb 18, 2019
India’s metros are building an unenviable reputation for themselves through a series of man-made disasters.
Fixing man-made disasters in Indian metro cities

India’s metros are building an unenviable reputation for themselves through the occurrence of a series of man-made disasters. These tragedies are happening one after another with amazing regularity. The latest to join the list of such horrific incidents is the fire that engulfed a hotel in Karolbagh, Delhi, which snuffed out 17 lives, leaving several others injured. Many of the dead were asleep while the early morning blaze spread through the air-conditioning ducts. Two jumped to their death to escape the fire. Among the departed were Myanmar nationals who were here as tourists. Three of a Kerala family had come to join the celebrations of a wedding. As is the normal case in an incident of fire, asphyxiation stood out as the single biggest cause for the unfortunate death of these hotel occupants.

Reports indicate that the hotel was first granted a licence in October 2005 and was renewed every year. The last renewal was done on 25 May 2018 with validity till March 2019. The State government of Delhi has ordered a magisterial inquiry to ascertain what went wrong and who were responsible. The fire department and the police are also looking at the causes of the incident. It is unlikely that these inquiries will land upon any material that may suggest novel reasons that were not already evident in earlier fire disasters. And it is equally unlikely that they would be able to establish clear-cut accountability.

The governance architecture in Delhi is such that accountability can easily be tossed around with no agency prepared to own it. Delhi has layers of public authority, parceled out among the municipal corporation, the State government, the Government of India and a whole host of parastatals and public agencies.

The first few bits of information that have come out of the hotel site are that the owner of the building had exceeded the number of floors that he was allowed to construct and had added floors unauthorisedly. This blatant illegal construction went unnoticed by all authorities that have powers to inspect such violations. The terrace that ought to have been fully unoccupied had been converted into a restaurant with a fibreglass structure and was partly used as storage for gas cylinders. Additionally, the facility had bars in the basement that were operating without permission. The smoke alarms were not working and the escape routes were either blocked due to smoke or had been kept locked by the management. Exit signages were either unclear or not at all visible and water hydrants were not functional. In brief, a carte blanche situation existed in regard to the hotel that had allowed the owner to pretty nigh do whatever he wished to maximise profiteering and disregard all safety precautions with impunity.

In their first reactions, leaders and officers representing different levels of government spoke their well-rehearsed lines, pinning blame on all except themselves. The fire department pointed out that they were woefully short of manpower. The state government felt that if power had rested with them like other states, such an incident could not have happened. The hotel-owner’s association was unhappy because it was the owners who were arrested and no one else was found prima facie culpable. In sum, the effort was to use the incident to press for unfulfilled self-interest.

What is important to note is that these horrendous incidents are becoming routine. Before closure is reached on one, a second has already happened, and then a third and a fourth.

On 31 March 2016, part of a flyover in Kolkata that was under construction collapsed killing more than 50 people and injuring 80 others. A similar flyover collapse in Kolkata got repeated in September 2018. Towards end of December 2017, in a pub fire in Central Mumbai, 14 people were killed and 16 injured. In September 2017, a stampede on a pedestrian bridge in Mumbai’s Elphinstone Road station resulted in 22 deaths and 35 persons grievously injured. This was triggered by people panicking on account of the rumour that the bridge was about to collapse. In the case of Chennai floods in 2016, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) revealed that the State's water resources department had allowed the indiscriminate discharge of water from the Chembarambakkam reservoir, which burdened river Adyar, leading to floods in the city and its suburbs. One could recount several such tragedies that were nothing else but man-made.

In not one case, serious punishment was meted out to anyone since no one could be found guilty. In no case, the complexity or the simplicity of the governance edifice made any difference. The result and the reaction in each case was the same.

It is quite clear that accountability in city government is difficult to establish since local bodies are not self-governing institutions. The logical solution to this would be to make the urban local bodies independent and empowered to self-govern along with robust transparency and accountability mechanisms fixed on them. However, this is a tall order. Power structures in the country are averse to any such decentralisation of authority since this would lead to loss of power of those who have them today. Despite global ‘good governance’ examples and sane advice by committees and experts, the status quoists have been entrenched well enough to thwart all such crusades.

Given such a scenario, an alternative in the existing situation needs to be found. This is not very complicated. If the universal axiom of governance is that power cannot be exercised without accountability, then it is equally axiomatic that in the absence of accountability, there should be no exercise of power. Since in the present state of affairs, the concerned departments in the urban local body, the State and the police are unable to keep watch over city activities, their authority to permit and inspect may be rescinded. A developer who wishes to undertake an activity knows what he is supposed to do. The city has a development plan and building control regulations that spell out what can be constructed, where it can be constructed and what kind of construction can be undertaken The Fire Code prescribes the provisions to be made for fire safety. The excise and police laws state how and where a bar can be established. The owner could go to the market and hire an architect, employ a contractor, retired excise men, fire personnel and other service providers. Each department, therefore, needs to have only a small advisory team whose assistance an owner could seek on a prescribed payment over the table, if he or she so desires. The civic web site should enable the owner to notify the authorities of his intention to put up a service, lodge his building plan and at the end self-certify compliance and notify the resumption of the service.

In the event of an incident or a disaster, the accountability is crystal clear. It rests with the owner and he should face exemplary punishment unless he can establish that he was not at fault.

The onus would entirely rest on him. This is likely to bring multiple benefits. Red tape would have vanished. Doing business would pick up speed since several years taken in the permission cycle need not be wasted. Official and political greasing of palms would cease and business could be done honestly. In the process, government would save money spent on superfluous establishment. One cannot see such a system doing any worse than the regime of inspections and permissions. Some city should pick up courage and give it a try. It would be an experiment, if successful, worthy of wide emulation.

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Ramanath Jha

Ramanath Jha

Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He works on urbanisation — urban sustainability, urban governance and urban planning. Dr. Jha belongs ...

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