Fire safety lost in high spirits

Fire safety lost in high spirits

Glaring fire safety violations by a majority of pubs and bars in Bengaluru has set off an extremely disturbing thought: A fire accident as devastating as the Kamala Mills fire in Mumbai that claimed 14 lives, was just waiting to happen here too.

Indeed, the Bruhath Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) has issued closure notices to 62 outlets across the city for violation of building sanction conditions and fire safety norms. But does this belated decision offer comfort, when a critical question remain unanswered: Why were the rooftop outlets allowed to function at all in the first place?

This is precisely the question posed by Uday Vijayan, president of Beyond Carlton, a fire safety citizen's collective formed after the Carlton Towers accident. "They shouldn't have been issued licences. Those who have it now have obviously violated some laws," he points out.

Beyond Carlton had filed a public interest litigation in the Karnataka High Court, leading to the state government notifying stringent rules for highrise buildings. "The rules mandated the buildings to obtain No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the fire department every two years. The department was empowered to reinspect and issue notices for violations. Failure to set things right would invite disconnection of power supply," he explains.

Rules not implemented

By implication, these rules were expected to strengthen norms for all buildings, pubs and bars included. Rooftop outlets without any fire fighting equipment was an absolute no no. "Unfortunately, we have been very reactive. We should be more proactive as a government," says Vijayan.

Every high footfall area should be seen as a public safety area, whether it is a pub, restaurant or commercial complex.

The fire department should really focus on this. "None of us can predict where the next fire will break out. We are virtually living by luck. This has to change by bringing in systemic changes."

Regulatory changes

The mushrooming of illegal rooftop pubs and bars has injected a sense of urgency in formulating regulatory changes. BBMP officials say the rooftop outlets issue has become particularly rampant after the zoning regulations came in.

Common Zoning Regulations were first articulated in the draft master plan of 2007-15. According to these, commercial establishments are not to be allowed in residential areas, especially in roads that are less than 40 ft wide. Those staying in residential areas had heaved a collective sigh of relief.

But despite the rule changes, business establishments continued to thrive through various means. The Kamala Mills fire accident has overnight pushed the authorities to act. Says the manager of a watering hole in Indiranagar, "All these years, they were fine with us and our business. But now, after the Mumbai accident, they have woken up and they are inspecting rooftop pubs and bars."

Inflammable materials

Here's what the Mayor, R Sampath Raj has to say on the ongoing raids and inspections: "Most of the rooftop pubs and bars do not have the permission to operate on rooftops. Here they use the bamboo and things which can easily catch fire." Some of these watering holes thriving in the city are situated on roads where even fire extinguishers cannot reach, he adds.

Surprise inspections have exposed glaring lapses in most pubs and bars: Inflammable bamboo and wood used to furnish rooftops; kitchen on rooftops; no door to enter the rooftop area; and other safety hazards.

Glaring loopholes

The inspections also revealed that the rooftops are an extension of either the ground floor or bar / restaurant on the floor just below the rooftop. Licences are obtained for one floor, which is then extended to the rooftop. This is clearly illegal, sparking questions as to how the Palike allowed these structures to come up.

Establishments that are exclusively on rooftops have been asked to shut down all operations within a week. For outlets with extensions, the order is to close down the rooftop area completely. If the orders are not followed, the trade licences are to be cancelled and the outlet owners penalised.

Manjunath Naik, commissioner, State Excise department informs that there is no specific type of licences for rooftop pubs or bars. The licence is similar to those of other bars. "They have to take a Conditional License number and they will have to comply with all the mentioned rules," says Naik.

Consistency needed

But the question on everyone's mind is this: Will these proactive measures last? On their part, the managers of many pubs and bars feel the situation is now ripe for harassment by the officials, whether they follow all the safety regulations or not. In fact, the manager of a prominent rooftop bar in Koramangala discloses that a few fire department officials routinely ask them for bribes if they want to avoid harassment. This establishment actually had an emergency fire exit and a very visible, functional and accessible fire extinguisher.

The manager says even though they are compliant with fire safety norms, they are forced to pay up the bribe amount to save customers any trouble.

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