The New Year began with a fire breaking out on the second floor of a modern commercial complex in the George Town area. Happily, no lives were lost, which was to the good. But the fire could be put out only after a struggle. What, however, emerged once again was the fact that new buildings in the oldest part of the city, as in several other places too, are coming up without any adherence to fire safety norms and regulations. Even if the original construction conformed, later additions put paid to such precautions. The question is, what are our regulatory authorities and planning agencies doing when these buildings are constructed and, later, modified?
The fire in the building under question broke out at 8 a.m. in a completely enclosed room with no windows. It was a good 45 minutes before the fire was detected and fire-safety personnel informed. When they arrived, they found the going tough. The windows to the office were barred with grilles and even the use of the sky-lift proved useless. Access was gained only by breaking open the front door and, by the time all this was done, the fire had spread. Fire tenders from various parts of the city had to be pressed into service to contain the conflagration. It also transpired that there was no fire-fighting equipment on the premises.
Considering that every building in the city is to be built/modified only after the CMDA/Corporation approves the plan, how are such fire accidents repeatedly taking place? Adherence to fire-safety norms is one of the criteria on the basis of which approval is given. If so, how is it that such buildings are allowed? It is well known that, in our city, the plan submitted for approval is often entirely different from what is finally constructed. This is why our civic authorities are supposed to visit building sites while work is in progress and ascertain compliance with what has been approved. And when the work is completed, they are supposed to inspect the site once again before issuing a compliance certificate. The same holds true for the water supply and electricity authorities as well. What happens in reality is that such inspections are rarely done and approval is more of a bureaucratic procedure rather than subjecting to actual inspection. This speaks volumes of the attitude builders, developers and civic authorities have towards public safety. What matters most to the builders and those who connive with them is the commercial success such projects make possible.
Planning for such structures in George Town (or, for that matter, in any of the older areas of the city) requires greater sensitivity. The indiscriminate approval for high-rises in the same locations could result in enormous possibilities for such fire accidents to occur. Ducting of cables is often never done and the wires are simply pulled from junction boxes and taken to the building where they are to be terminated. This is by itself a hazard. Secondly, access to all parts of a building from the street is next to impossible considering that most of the streets were planned originally with buildings sharing common walls.
If this be the problem with the new buildings, the older ones in these areas are prone to fire too. They contain enormous quantities of dry timber, which is perfect fuel for fires to spread. Moreover, because of issues of ownership in many of these buildings, poor maintenance and neglect result. It is, therefore, all the more necessary for civic authorities to keep an eye on them through periodic inspections.
What is being demanded is not something extraordinary. Any international city needs a proactive civic body that issues compliance certificates only after due-diligence processes are completed. Chennai, which at least on paper claims to be a world-class city, need not and cannot be an exception.