The inferno on 16 March at the sprawling Swapnalok Complex in Secunderabad has once again brought the fire safety norms being followed — or, rather, not being followed — in the city into sharp focus.
This is the third major fire-related tragedy Secunderabad has witnessed in just the past six months — leaving a total of 17 people asphyxiated or burnt alive.
While Thursday’s fire tragedy left six people dead, all of them below 25 years, the charred remains of three young men were found in the now-demolished Deccan Corporation building on Minister’s Road. It was gutted in fire on 19 January this year.
Last year, eight people, mostly tourists, were engulfed in flames on 12 September when a massive fire broke out at the Ruby Pride Luxury Hotel, with the fire having started in an electrical vehicle showroom in the building.
Investigations into these fires have found that fire safety norms were flouted in all three cases. And three violations were common to all the tragedies.
While the owners of these buildings were booked and must be held responsible for not following fire safety norms, the authorities responsible for inspecting and enforcing safety norms are equally culpable, fire safety experts told South First.
“Had the enforcement agencies done their jobs diligently, those 17 people need not have died. GHMC, being a larger agency, is directly responsible for such tragedies. It is their duty to conduct regular checks on safety measures. There is large-scale corruption in GHMC,” Hyderabad-based social activist SQ Masood told South First.
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Out-of-order fire safety equipment
Non-functional fire safety equipment was a huge lapse found in all three accidents. As with the Ruby Hotel, the fire-fighting apparatus at Swapnalok Complex was also not in working condition.
“There were fire equipments like extinguishers, wet risers, hose reels, sprinklers, underground water tank and others in the building. But they were not working at all. It was as if they were there for ornamental purposes,” Fire Regional Officer (FRO) Papaih Varla told South First.
Wet risers are a supply system intended to distribute water to multiple levels or compartments of a building.
“Water was available and pumps were too were there, but nothing worked at the time of the fire,” Papaih noted.
He added that the onus is on the building owners to check whether these are maintained from time to time.
“Another problem noticed in Swapnalok Complex was that the electric ducts (protective tubes carrying electric cables or wire) were covered with wooden doors instead of fire-resistant doors,” the FRO noted.
In the case of the Ruby Hotel, too, the accused owners had flouted the safety norms by setting up an e-bikes business and charging of batteries without permission from the authorities in the basement.
A short circuit in one of the batteries was suspected to be the cause of the fire incident.
Related: 2 injured, 3 missing, 100s displaced in Secunderabad fire
Blocked access and poor ventilation
In these three fire mishaps, the access of firefighters to the victims was blocked in one way or another.
“In the Swapnalok Complex fire, the staircase was blocked with garbage and the corridors were cluttered with cartons and boxes. The door to the staircase was also locked. Inflammable material were adding fuel to the raging fire,” said Papaih Varla, adding that the onus for this was also on the owners.
According to reports, even if the fire exit had been unlocked, the victims would still not have managed to escape owing to the garbage and other material blocking the staircase.
Poor ventilation in all three buildings was the reason for a huge increase in the smoke levels inside. Many of the victims died not from burns, but by inhaling smoke.
“Due to interior designs of these buildings, the ventilation points were found to be sealed with tape and other items. The designs of the buildings were poor,” Papaih pointed out.
Read more: Kachi Bowli residents homeless after Secunderabad fire
Operating without NOC
Currently, under the Telangana Fire Service Act of 1999, a fire NOC, No Objection Certificate, is mandatory only for commercial buildings above 15 metres in height and residential buildings above 18 metres.
However, with increasing fire incidents last year, the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) is considering bringing in a monitoring system with separate guidelines for commercial and residential establishments below 15 metres and 18 metres, respectively.
But no official notification is out yet in this regard.
Meanwhile, in all three Secunderabad fire outbreaks in the past six months, it was found that the buildings were operating without a NOC from the Fire Department, and were in clear violation of several other rules.
In the case of the Ruby Hotel, the owner Rajender Bagga was illegally running the electric vehicle scooters showroom in the basement. Similarly, in the demolished Deccan Corporation, the owner extended the boundaries of the basement without permission.
“About a month ago, we issued notice to several buildings, including the Swapnalok Complex, after our inspections found that fire the safety equipment was not working in these buildings. But before they could complete the work, this incident happened,” Papaih said.
Who inspects? What are the penalties?
The safety norms of a building in Hyderabad are supposed to be checked by the Enforcement Vigilance and Disaster Management (EVDM) wing of the GHMC and the Telangana Fire Services.
“Right now we have issued notices to 14 buildings in Hyderabad and three in Secunderabad for violating safety measures. Those who do not comply or have not complied in the past, we impose a fine of ₹50,000 or seal that building. We can also cancel their trade license,” EVDM Director Prakash Reddy told South First.
While the GHMC issued notice to the management of Swapnalok Complex, no notices of flouting safety measures were issued or fine was imposed on the Ruby Hotel or Deccan Corporation.
“There is too much corruption in GHMC. Officials take money for issuing NOCs, due to which owners escape penalties. There are so many cases of food poisoning in schools, too, but see what food inspectors are doing,” activist Masood alleged.
Meanwhile, Union Minister G Kishan Reddy, who visited the burnt Swapnalok Complex on 19 March, accused the Telangana government and the GHMC of not taking action against owners of buildings whose negligence is leading to a series of fire accidents and loss of lives.
“The government is encouraging illegal construction for more revenue. Whenever a fire accident takes place, they say we will take action but later forget it,” Reddy alleged.
Swapnalok: Multiple owners complicates matters
Fire Station Officer of Secunderabad D Mohan Rao told South First that the fire authorities continuously served notices to the Swapnalok Complex over a decade.
“First in 2013, then in 2015, and then recently we asked them to install fire safety equipment; but the owners neglected proper maintenance.”
He added that the Fire Department can impose a maximum fine of ₹25,000 or three months imprisonment if a person violates safety measures.
“If it’s a single owner, then its easy to levy the penalty. But in the case of a group of owners, as is the case in the Swapnalok Complex, it gets complicated.”
All the officials stressed that building owners must install equipment, ensure timely maintenance, check that the staircase and the corridors leading to them are debris free and obtain the NOC from authorities.
Meanwhile, the Director General of Telangana Fire Services Y Nagi Reddy has appealed to people to inform 101 if they come across staircases blocked with garbage or the building’s exits were blocked in any way.