To assuage public anger in the wake of the Kamala Mills tragedy, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation belatedly swung into action on Saturday, sealing and demolishing restaurants and bars flouting safety regulations across the city.
A fire in a restaurant called 1Above on the rooftop of a building in Kamala Mills Complex in central Mumbai’s Lower Parel locality had left at least 14 people dead and more than 50 injured on Thursday night. The restaurant, it was subsequently found, did not have a fire exit and possibly even requisite fire-fighting equipment. Some patrons took the staircase to escape while many used the elevator even though this was dangerous. All the 14 people who died had taken refuge in toilets and suffocated to death.
On Saturday morning, the corporation officials launched an “inspection drive” across the 24 wards of the city to identify, and act against, restaurants and bars violating any provisions of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation Act.
In all, 624 establishments were inspected. As many as 314 of them were partially or completely demolished for constructing structures without permission or encroaching on state land. Seven restaurants were sealed.
That it was primarily an exercise in damage control did not escape notice, however. Indeed, the municipal officials ensured they were followed by a battery of TV news cameras covering the “demolition drive” live.
“This is all a farce,” said the activist and former journalist Anil Galgali. “It is good that the BMC is taking action – but why today?”
But municipal corporation officials insisted that the exercise was not merely a “grand show”. A senior official claimed that the municipal commissioner, Ajoy Mehta, had directed them to take action against erring restaurants immediately after the fire at 1Above.
Assistant Commissioner Prashant Sakpale said they had demolished an illegally constructed shed at 1Above in August, and served a notice to the restaurant. He could not explain why the corporation did not take further action despite being empowered to punish any establishment found violating structural and fire safety norms.
Indeed, if anything, today’s exercise showed that the municipal officials have the power to act against establishments violating regulations if they so want. In the past, the officials have often blamed “long procedures and political pressures” for failing to take such action. As a senior official pointed out, there are enough provisions in the law that allow the corporation to even demolish a structure if it poses danger to human life.
Only rich lives matter?
On December 18, 12 workers, mostly from Uttar Pradesh, died of suffocation when their small manufacturing unit in Sakinaka, in the western suburb of Andheri, caught fire. Like 1Above, the unit was operating in violation of fire safety norms.
There was barely any uproar over the Sakinaka tragedy. There were no tweets from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s account, politicians such as Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis did not queue up at the shop like they did at Kamala Mills or visit the grieving families of the migrant labourers.
As Galgali pointed out, “five officers were suspended immediately in the Kamala Mills case but no action was taken against a single officer for Sakinaka incident”. “BMC officials in both incidents were negligent and did not perform their duties,” he said. “How can the actions be so different. Lives were lost.”