Hours after a devastating fire at a rooftop restaurant at Kamala Mills in Mumbai claimed 14 lives, the city’s official machinery swung into belated action.

The Mumbai police filed a case against the restaurant’s promoters for culpable homicide for not ensuring the safety of the premises, while the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation said that it would inspect all 35 or so restaurants in the complex located in the Lower Parel area to ensure that they comply with fire safety norms.

Citizens, however, are asking why they did not do this before the tragedy.

Lower Parel has grown into a food and entertainment hub over the last 15 years, but without the infrastructure necessary to support up. But in addition to the narrow roads and inadequate transport systems, the area also needs to pay more attention to matters that often escape attention. Fire safety, experts say, should be a priority area.

With Mumbai’s entertainment scene expanding rapidly, the city’s fire department must conduct more regular fire safety audits, especially in older buildings, said Pankaj Joshi of the Urban Development and Research Institute based in Mumbai.

A growing problem in Mumbai, particularly in restaurant hubs like Lower Parel, where there are old mill buildings, and in the heritage buildings of the southern Fort area, is that these old structures are being retrofitted to meet modern requirements. The most common reason for fires in these buildings is not from kitchen accidents but because of short circuits in lighting or air conditioning systems. When old meters get overloaded with higher demand, the system can heat up and cause a fire, Joshi said.

“There needs to be a thorough audit of most buildings that have been retrofitted,” he said.

Although several of the buildings in Lower Parel are new, in Kamala Mills at least, the oldest building dates to the late 1990s, Joshi said. Restaurants only began to open in the compound less than five years ago. These may not follow newer building safety rules that mandate refuge areas and in-built sprinkler systems to douse the fires, he said.

“There are clear regulations for new buildings with respect to fire safety, though it takes ten to 15 years for them to actually be implemented,” said Samir D’Monte, a Mumbai-based architect. “But there’s no clear regulatory framework for old buildings.”

Where does the buck stop?

The police have filed charges against the owners of the restaurant. But D’Monte contends that role of the owners of the buildings in Kamala Mills should also be considered.

“The landlord is supposed to provide a safe premise to his tenant and the restaurant has to provide a safe premise to its guests,” D’Monte said. “But there is a bit of a grey area in who should be responsible for fire safety.”

With tenants changing every few years and unable to make large structural changes without permission, D’Monte contends that landlords should also be held responsible. While most new buildings come with fire escapes and fire padding in the stairwells and refuge areas, old buildings do not comply with these requirements.

The management of 1Above, where the fire broke out, has released a statement claiming that it had followed all fire safety regulations and had its licences in place. It also said that it conducts quarterly fire safety and crisis management training.

“This was also conducted recently for this quarter as per our vigilant practice for all our staff and managers,” the statement said. “There are over 10 fire extinguishers and adequate fire safety signatures in the premises as is required by the authorities. As part of the same fire safety protocol, the fire exit dedicated to 1Above was maintained well as per rules and regulations – a reason why we were able to evacuate persons speedily.”

The statement adds that its staff stayed on to help evacuate guests from the neighbouring Mojo’s Bistro as well.

Regular audits necessary

None of this exonerates the municipal corporation or the fire department.

In 2013, the Supreme Court asked the fire department to conduct annual fire safety audits of the city’s structures. Yet in 2016, the divisional fire officer moved the Bombay High Court to claim that it was the duty of the owner of a building to ensure fire prevention measures, not of the fire department.

“Periodic inspections are extremely critical,” Joshi said. Even if a sprinkler system or a fire extinguisher is working when the municipality grants a restaurant its licence, there is no guarantee that it will not stop working in six months. “The onus is on the authority to see systems are in place. If they are not in place, shut down the restaurant for that period and get everything working. You cannot be frivolous about these things.”

As Joshi pointed out, it is not as if fire departments in cities abroad offer these services for free. If Mumbai’s fire department were to charge for a cursory annual inspection and a more thorough one every five years, the city would be safer.

Said Joshi, “Auditing has to be regular and honest. It should not become a means for extortion. In fire management, damage to property has to be minimised, but casualties have to be zero. Other cities have been doing this for the last 100 years. It is high time we set up systems to do this too.”