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Surat fire: yet another tale of negligence, apathy, cynicism and systemic failure

The devastating fire that engulfed the Takshashila arcade in Surat on Friday, claiming 23 young lives, is
a grim reminder of our repeated failures and perpetual state of unpreparedness when it comes to
mitigating disasters. The painful visuals from the blaze at the coaching centre were eerily similar to
the Carlton Towers fire accident that broke out in Bengaluru in 2010, in which helpless victims leaped
out of windows in hope of surviving, while the others perished beyond recognition.
 
As I write this, the Surat fire is 2 days old news. The tragedy came at a time when
the country was focused on the only just concluded general elections where the
PM Narendra Modi returned with something like the “I’ll be back” swagger
epitomized by the one and only Arnold Schwarzenegger. And yet, such was the
enormity of the tragedy that news channels gave it top billing beyond politics and
the images of young children jumping desperately off the ledge-some to their
deaths- remain etched in our memory.
We are at a time that even a phrase like ‘I told you so’ has become clichéd. When
the world today is on a tech spiral upwards in all areas, we see the same errors,
the same omissions, the same excuses and the same headlines where fire
tragedies are concerned. Let me just put down a few points in bullet form so that
you all can relive the ‘Oh! I heard that one before” feeling…. Again.
? The fire safety licenses were not obtained for the premises.
? The victims were not able to get out as there were no exits available.
? The firefighting equipment was absent.. or non functional.
? The fire brigade reached late.
? The premises were served notices…umpteen times.
? There were no lights or signs to help exigency.
? The emergency exit was jammed due to unused and windows were
jammed.
I am sure you too can add a few more to these. But it’s time to put down some
updates and shed some more light on the horrific Surat case for the record here.
The Surat Municipal Corporation on Saturday suspended two fire officers for
granting a no-objection certificate to the building, which was engulfed by a
devastating fire that claimed 22 young lives, hours after the manager of the
coaching class where the students who died were studying was arrested and
charges have been lodged against two others for the incident.
Municipal Commissioner M Thenarasan told reporters that Surat's Deputy Chief
Fire Officer SK Acharya and Fire Officer Kirti Modh were suspended with
immediate effect on charges of not taking action against the Takshashila Arcade
where Friday's blaze occurred for violation of fire safety norms.
Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani stated: "We have constituted an investigation
committee, Urban Secretary (Principal Secretary, Urban Development), Mukesh
Puri has been asked to file a report based on which we will take action. The
manager and builder have been arrested."
 
Surat Assistant Commissioner of Police PL Chaudhari late Saturday evening said
the death toll in the incident had risen to 22. He informed reporters that "two
teenage girls died today, taking the toll to 22, including 18 girls and four boys."
Earlier, an official had said the number was 23. Around 12 injured persons were
still undergoing treatment at various hospitals.
Most of the students who were killed in the fire were aged between 14 and 17.
Some were expecting their Class 12 results on Saturday.
Shaken by the fire, all of Gujarat's eight municipal corporations and scores of
municipalities on Saturday ordered a shutdown of all coaching centres running in
commercial complexes.
The death toll was finally clocked at 23. Twenty three lives lost in a tragedy which
trumps any horror movie in optics and frightfulness. The crackdown, as expected
will follow on the offenders. However, it would be more interesting to know what
concrete steps would be taken to prevent a repetition of the tragedy. Accidents
are accidents because they strike without warning. But we are at a time that fire
tragedies cannot really be called accidents any more but inevitabilities just
waiting to happen because the recipe has been prepared by us.
The fire was reported a result of a short circuit and a complaint has been
registered against three people, including the builder and manager of the
complex. They have been identified as Harshal Vekaria and Jignesh. Meanwhile,
the owner of the coaching centre, Bhargav Bhutani, has also been detained.
According to reports, at least 70 students were present in the building when the
fire broke out a majority of the people stuck in the fire died due to suffocation or
by jumping off the building to escape the inferno.
In a video of that emerged on social media, students at the Takshashila Complex
in Sarthana could be seen jumping off the third and fourth floors as the fire
intensified and blocked all exits.
THAT DÉJÀ VU FEELING
 
There have been numerous fire accidents in the past few years. The Kamala Mills
shocker stirred the nation out of slumber. In 2018 alone, a fire explosion in a
cracker factory in Warangal took 10 lives; 6 died in a fire in ESIC Mumbai Hospital
and yet another massive blaze in a Lucknow hotel claimed 5 lives. Then a massive
fire that broke out in the Technic plus One building in Mumbai killed 4 and
another 17 lives met with a similar fate in Haryana, after a fire engulfed a
firecracker unit in Bawana.
As per the latest data published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in
2015, 48 Indians are killed in a fire accident every day. The numbers are more
daunting for women, as fire accidents in residential areas are higher.
Ignorance may be called bliss in lore, but in fire accident cases ignorance can be
death. Most of us are not trained to fight even a small fire, let alone knowing
what needs to be done, in case one is stuck in a blaze. Chances are, we may not
even be aware of the emergency numbers to dial in such situations.
We may not know that in enclosed spaces, proper backups such as emergency
lights, glow signs, fire extinguishers in working condition and accessible and clear
exit routes are mandatory by law and not optional.
A blogger puts it succinctly saying, “Most of us live by the ‘nothing can happen to
us’ philosophy. For us, fire accidents are a distant reality, a mere figment of our
daily fix of news that that we read in newspapers, discuss with our peers and
eventually, forget. Most of us fail to put ourselves in the situation and wonder:
what if I was in the same place? Such sensitisation needs to be channelized at a
young age, with citizens being made aware of safety practices, whether its road
safety, fire mitigation or something else.”