Barely 12 hours after Mumbai’s fire fighters doused the blaze that gutted the Make in India stage at Girgaon Chowpatty on Monday evening, the beach showed no signs of the disaster that had been narrowly averted. The last of the dismantled bamboo and metal frames were being trucked away on Monday morning, the charred skeleton of the stage had disappeared and even the ash had been swept away.

The fire broke out from under stage on Sunday night, in the midst of a dance performance showcasing Maharashtrian culture as part of the ongoing Make in India Week in Mumbai. The flames engulfed the stage within minutes, but there were no human casualties. Much like the speedy and successful evacuation of more than 20,000 people from the venue, the state and civic machinery has been efficient in clearing the debris and restoring the beach to normal.

But the commendable disaster management after the fire does not make up for the fact that the state government pushed for approvals to hold the event on the beach even after the Bombay High Court and a special committee monitoring beach activities refused to grant permission for it.

One of the reasons why the committee had rejected the government’s plea for permissions was past experience: In 2010, when the state was granted special leave to celebrate Maharashtra’s golden jubilee anniversary on the beach, it flouted the committee’s rule prohibiting the erection of a stage that would block the public’s view of the sea.

This time, according to a report in the Mumbai Mirror, the state government flouted another instruction by including firecrackers in the programme, even though the fire department had instructed them not to burst any near the stage. The cause of Sunday’s fire is still being investigated, but it could have been triggered by a leak from the gas cylinders meant to set off the fireworks.

Rule flouted

On January 28, the High Court had ruled that it could not allow potential damage to Girgaon Chowpatty beach with the construction of a stage, back stage, rooms and toilets. “A large crowd will assemble to watch the event...It is not necessary to elaborate the adverse effects of such a large gathering on the beach,” the Court said in its ruling.

In response, the state government appealed to the Supreme Court on the grounds that the event would be a symbol “India’s pride” in the presence of international delegates. On February 3, the apex court stayed the High Court ruling and granted permissions for the event, allowing the state to set up a massive 1,000-sq-m stage at a spot that took up most of the beach and eventually blocked the view of the sea.

Even though the event was organised with the blessings of the Supreme Court, the location of the event was one of the major sticking points for the High Court and the Court-appointed committee set up in 2001 to monitor activities on the beach.

In 2005, the committee had formulated a set of guidelines to regulate beach activities. “We researched the history of the beach and allowed the use of the beach for certain events that have been around for decades,” said Rajan Jayakar, a solicitor and one of the members of the Girgaon Chowpatty committee. These events include immersion of the idols of gods such as Ganesh and Durga, staging a Ram Leela and Krishna Leela and also celebrating Christmas for one day.

Events like the Ram Leela and the Christmas celebration are allowed only on a section of the beach, towards the side, so that the view of the sea is not blocked and the rest of the beach remains completely accessible to the public. The guidelines also make it clear that no political event or rally would be allowed on the beach. At that time, all the guidelines were accepted without opposition by any of the parties involved, including the state.

In 2010, when the state government asked for permission to organise a function marking 50 years since the formation of Maharashtra, the committee and a division bench of the High Court granted that permission on the grounds that it would be held exactly where the Ram Leelas are also held.

When the event was held, however, the committee’s rule seemed to have been forgotten. Jayakar pointed this out to the High Court last month, stating that “though permission was granted to hold the function where Ram Leela function is held, the function was held by the state elsewhere on the beach”.

More stringent from now on

For the Make in India event, the state government approached the committee – and then the court – not to seek modifications in the guidelines, but ask for permission to hold the event in the middle of the beach anyway.

Now, after the fire, the committee is likely to get more stringent in granting annual permissions even for Ram Leelas, Christmas celebrations and Ganesh immersions.

“When our committee grants these permissions, we have representatives from the fire department and the police in our meetings, so we assume that fire safety is being looked after,” said Jayakar.

What happened at Make in India, he says, was obviously a “human error” that could also happen during the burning of Ravan’s effigy in the Ram Leelas. “Now we will probably have to impose more conditions on these event organisers before granting them a licence.”