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Kamala mills- A tragedy that forced course correction?

The Bombay High Court-appointed judicial committee inquiring into the fire at Kamala Mills Compound in Mumbai in 2017 has recommended action against a co-owner of the premises and owners of the two restaurants, blaming them for the incident. The three-member committee submitted its report to the high court on Monday, 10th September. It was made available on Wednesday evening.

The horrific tragedy that took 14 lives can hardly claim any silver lining. Yet the aftermath does afford a ray of hope. A system in slumber was shaken up at all levels and alarm bells began to ring shrilly not just across Mumbai but across various states and cities in the country.

Nine months down the line, the authorities and the administration remains engaged in correcting age old wrongs and putting firewalls in place to prevent recurrence of that night of death. It reminds us all of some age old sayings such as, “A stitch in time saves nine”. The building code is clear in that exigency protocols that include clutter free escape route, emergency lights, signages and path finding paraphernalia in fire situations are mandatory. However here was a case where one needed to really look hard to find at least one requirement that was actually in place when the mishap occurred.

The committee recommended "appropriate punitive action" against co-owner of Kamala Mills Compound Ramesh Gowani and owners of the two restaurants. The three-member committee headed by Justice (retired) AV Savant and including architect Vasant Thakur and former municipal commissioner K Nalinakshan was set up by the high court in April.

The panel was formed by a bench headed by Justice Bhushan Gavai in response to a public interest litigation filed by former Mumbai police commissioner Julio Riberio demanding safety audit of all restaurants and pubs in Mumbai.  Gowani and six owners of the two restaurants were arrested by police after the fire.

Gowani, who holds 95 percent stake in the Kamala Mills property, permitted the restaurant owners to make unauthorised additions to the structures, it said.

"The owners of both the restaurants committed flagrant violations in converting the entire open terrace into two full-fledged restaurants divided by a partition of highly combustible material and covered by equally inflammable material, such as cotton curtains, plastic covers, etc.

"To make the situation... fatal for the patrons who died due to asphyxia...there was no trained staff or security personnel to guide them in case of emergency," the report said.

One of the waiters of 1Above directed 13 patrons to illegally constructed toilet block which had no exit or ventilation, and as a result all 13 and the waiter himself died of suffocation, the report further noted.

"The rear side of the terrace was blocked, and the terrace area was used for stocking inflammable material such as liquor, kerosene and coal. Also, the terrace was used for serving hookah. All of these were in violation of the licence terms and the fire norms," the committee said.

Superintendent of State Excise A B Chaksar and Excise Inspector Sandeep More and Vijay Thorat ignored apparent violations of licence terms at the two restaurants, it claimed.

To avoid such tragedies in future, better coordination between government departments and implementation of "stricter checks and balances" to ensure there is no violation of construction or safety norms in commercial areas are needed, the committee said.

The three-member judicial committee, headed by retired Justice Arvind Savant, has said in its report on the Kamala Mills fire of December 2017 that the owner of the premises "Ramesh Gowani committed serious deviations/ violations of the two no objection certificates (NOCs) granted".

The NOCs were issued on February 10, 2O17, and September 26, 2O17 by the fire officer for change of activity from the existing "office" to "restaurant".

There are a large number of conditions "stipulated in the said NOCs, which have been blatantly violated by him," said the committee.

WHAT THE REPORT ACTUALLY SAYS AND UNDERLINES

The report says that Ramesh Gowani was getting substantial income through the licence fee from the two restaurants (1 Above and Mojo's Bistro where the fire killed 14 people), but had taken no care whatsoever to ensure that the conditions of the NOCs were complied with.

The violations noted by the committee were:

1. the specified width was not maintained at the entrance of the two restaurants,
2. there were obstructions on the way to the staircase to go down,
3. the partition that was illegally put up on the terrace dividing the areas of the two restaurants was not fire proof,
4. the escape routes/exits in case of fire, were not highlighted
5. smoking and service of hookah was being permitted on the terrace, thus violating the provisions of the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Act, 2003 (COTPA 2OO3),
6. the staff was not trained in dealing with any emergency or fire rescue operations,
7. there were no fire extinguishers, sand buckets, smoke detectors, hooters, sirens provided anywhere on the terrace.

The illegally constructed toilet block where the people had escaped to save themselves from fire and which had proved to be fatal, according to the committee, had only one entrance but neither any exit nor any ventilation.

According to the committee, without taking any authority's permission the toilet block was demolished before the committee could study the cause of deaths there.

The committee noted that the registered office of Kamla Mills Ltd., in which Gowani sits, is on the third floor itself and is next to restaurant Mojo's Bistro on the terrace.

The two restaurants were paying Gowani, monthly license fees of Rs 38,42,624 and both the restaurant owners have told the committee that the illegal toilet block existed even before the restaurants came up.

Thus the committee concluded that Gowani had full control over and access to the entire terrace and he removed the toilet block with the intention that the members of the Committee should not be able to see the condition of the toilet block and, in particular, the absence of any exit route, signage or even ventilation.

In its 206-page report, the commission has concluded Gowani is also guilty of several breaches by way of use of excessive floor space index (FSI) under the guise of the premises being used for Information Technology (IT). With this the Commission has concluded that conditions of the 2 NOCs were honoured by Gowani "more in breach than in observance".

Gowani was arrested by the Mumbai Police on Januray 21 and had told the court that he had nothing to do with the fire and was arrested in the face of mounting pressure.

Gowani told the Bombay High Court that the fire broke out in restaurants and as owner of the land he had nothing to do with the day-to-day operations of restaurants and thus should be given bail. Gowani got bail after four months of his arrest.

The three-member committee while indicting mill owner Ramesh Govani for serious violation of DCR rules and for using double the amount of FSI granted also said that Gowani did not ensure that 80 per cent of constructed area was used for Information Technology purposes for which he had permission. There was an illegal change of user and hence necessary action should be initiated against him at the earliest, concluded the committee.