The fire in a rooftop restaurant in Kamala Mills in downtown Mumbai that left 14 people dead is not the first avoidable tragedy in the nation's financial capital that aspires to be a global financial hub. Nor would it be the last if the record of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is anything to go by. Just 10 days ago, there was another tragedy when 12 labourers were killed after a fire broke out in a snack shop in Saki Naka area of Mumbai. In October 2015, eight students at a Chinese eatery in Kurla locality under BMC died in a fire. It turned out that the mezzanine floor where they were seated was illegal. The BMC officials knew about it but did nothing. In the case of the rooftop restaurant where the fire broke out last Thursday, too, the BMC had admitted that the outlet had no licence operate from the terrace, in response to an RTI query in May this year. Despite knowing the illegality, the BMC did not act against it.
The main cause of the deaths in the Kamala Mills fire was that emergency escape routes were kept in a criminally poor condition, with a lot of unregulated construction in complete defiance of safety regulations. Faced with public outrage, the state police and civic authorities have suddenly swung into action. Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has ordered that all illegal structures be 'demolished on a war footing'. Five BMC officials have been arrested and the police have registered criminal cases against the owners of the illegal constructions. Deterrent action against those responsible for the deaths should undoubtedly be taken without delay. Else it would go the Uphaar way. The history of Delhi's Uphaar cinema hall tragedy, when 59 people lost their lives in a stampede after a fire, took their families two decades to get some justice. This should not be repeated. An impartial inquiry must also determine a violation of rules and identify the officials who allowed them. Such tragedies should not be treated as instances of mere negligence.
Beyond immediate response, what is needed is sustained and systematic enforcement of licensing and safety norms. Otherwise, such tragedies will keep repeating with harrowing regularity not only in Mumbai but all across the country. Turning a blind eye to safety regulations is not a phenomenon confined to Mumbai. The national capital and most state capitals fare no better. The civic bodies need to be taught to have zero tolerance toward violation of safety requirements. While civic officials must be held accountable, they should also be given adequate powers and resources to discharge their duties. The NDA government wants to make smart cities. It should make them safer, too.