A fire mishap in the Bhandara district general hospital that killed 10 newborn babies in January 2021 prompted Maharashtra government to conduct a fire audit in primary health centres, district hospitals and rural hospitals across the state. But funds to set up fire-fighting systems are yet to be allocated to half the districts, a state official said.

One of the districts that hasn’t received the funds is Ahmednagar. On November 6, a short-circuit sparked a fire in an intensive care unit of the district’s civil hospital, killing 11 of 17 Covid-19 patients admitted there.

With this, Maharashtra has recorded at least nine episodes of hospital fires since August 2020, resulting in 54 deaths.

Information furnished by an official, who did not want to be identified, shows that an estimate of Rs 5.21 crore was drawn up on April 6 by Ahmednagar’s Public Works Department to install fire-fighting systems in all of its 96 primary health centres, 24 rural hospitals, two sub-district and one civil hospital. An additional budget of Rs 48.9 lakh was drawn up for electrical work in these hospitals.

But funds have neither been allocated by the District Planning and Development Council nor by the state’s public health department.

In Bhandara district, a month after 10 newborns succumbed to smoke inhalation and burn injuries in the fire, Maharashtra government allotted Rs 1.53 crore to the hospital to rebuild its sick newborn care unit, and Rs 1.90 crore to install fire safety equipment in the entire hospital.

Nine months later, neither the sick newborn care unit is functional nor is the fire-fighting system.

Charred remains of the ICU at the Ahmednagar hospital where a fire broke out on Saturday. Photo: PTI

Blame game in Ahmednagar

The ICU that was gutted in Ahmednagar on Saturday was a 19-bedded facility for Covid-19 patients. It had been set up in a two-year-old building of the civil hospital, after the pandemic began last year.

On November 6, the fire began around 10.30 am, with a short circuit in the ceiling of the ICU, officials said. The ceiling was made of asbestos, an inflammable material. The oxygen pipeline was running close to the electrical wires – another safety lapse since oxygen, too, is highly inflammable.

Local leaders alleged other lapses by the hospital. “We found out that the express feeder, which provides uninterrupted power supply, had been illegally diverted from the civil hospital to a nearby private hospital called Saideep. That is a safety hazard,” said Girish Jadhav, deputy president of the ruling Shiv Sena in Ahmednagar district.

Dr Satish Pawar, additional mission director at the Directorate of Health Services, said an inquiry committee will probe the allegation to assess if this led to voltage fluctuations and eventually a short circuit in the ICU.

Jagdish Kale of the Public Works Department in Ahmednagar said there was no fault in the electrical wiring system of the ICU, but it lacked a fire-fighting system. He said he had drawn a cost estimate for the fire safety system and submitted it to the civil hospital in April, but no action had been taken.

District officials told Scroll.in that the Public Works Department had repeatedly urged the civil hospital, including through reminders sent in September and October this year, to install a proper fire-fighting system in the hospital. The letters also warned of a possible fire mishap.

The Covid-19 ICU had fire extinguishers but had not trained its staff in using them, an official in the civil hospital said. Even though the fire department had advised the civil hospital to set up water hydrants, sprinklers, smoke detectors, the equipment was missing.

While the Public Works Department and the fire department have put the blame on the health department, a senior state health official denied these allegations. He said the PWD approved a technical estimate for the fire system only a fortnight ago. On October 22, the chief engineer in the Public Works Department signed the technical estimate for setting up a fire-fighting system in Ahmednagar district, two officials in Ahmednagar said.

The Bhandara district general hospital, where 10 newborn babies died in a fire in January, lacked a fire safety system. Photo: PTI

Fire audits ordered after Bhandara mishap

The Ahmednagar fire comes 10 months after chief minister Uddhav Thackeray had ordered a fire audit in all hospitals across Maharashtra.

The order had been prompted by the fire in the Bhandara district general hospital, where 10 newborns had died on January 9. The hospital was functioning without a no-objection certificate from the fire department.

A preliminary survey by the Directorate of Health Services in 484 government hospitals subsequently found that 90% of them did not have a no-objection certificate.

Since then, not only fire audits, even structural and electrical audits have been carried out in all government hospitals, claimed Santosh Warick, director of Maharashtra Fire Safety Services.

“There are multiple issues leading to a fire,” he said. “Even if the fire safety system is in place, electrical or mechanical issues could be responsible [for an outbreak of fire]. Gaps in these systems were addressed in a report to each district.”

A fire audit is just the beginning of a long process to install fire safety systems. After the audit is conducted, the Public Works Department, responsible for the construction and maintenance of government buildings, drafts an estimate of the cost of installing fire safety systems, gets the technical estimate approved by its chief engineer, and submits the proposal to the district civil surgeon.

The health office then submits the proposal to either the district collector for allocation of funds from the corpus of the District Planning and Development Council, or to the state public health department. Once the funds are allocated, a tender is issued to assign the work.

Since August 2020, Maharashtra has seen nine fire episodes in hospitals that have left 54 people dead. Photo: PTI

Procedural delays across the state

Conversations with district officials reveal a delay in the entire process not just in Ahmednagar but in multiple districts. A state official confirmed that the Maharashtra health department has so far allocated funds for the installation of hospital fire-fighting systems to just 18 of 36 districts.

In Beed district, no fire audit has been carried out. In Satara, while a fire audit has been carried out, out of the funds required to set up fire safety systems in 72 primary health centres, only Rs 25 lakh has been allotted for four centres.

In Chandrapur, a proposal of Rs 98 lakh for installing fire safety systems in 65 primary health centres has been approved under the District Planning and Development Council funds. “We have received funds, but the fire system is yet to be set up,” a district official said. A fire-fighting system is installed in just one rural hospital of Chandrapur, as of now.

In Bhandara, work on installing a fire-fighting system and constructing a newborn unit in the district general hospital began three months ago.

“So far 60% of installation work is complete,” a district health official said. “There was a delay in issuing the tender and finalising the bidder.”

The health department in Bhandara district had also submitted proposals to set up fire-fighting systems in 33 primary health centres, seven rural hospitals and two sub-district hospitals six months ago to the district authorities and the state health department. The proposals are yet to be approved.

“Bhandara civil hospital was a sensitive issue, so funds were quickly sanctioned. As months passed, the administration has lost interest in other fire-fighting proposals,” the health official said.

This reporting was supported by a grant from the Thakur Family Foundation. Thakur Family Foundation has not exercised any editorial control over the contents of this article.