Questions are being raised about Delhi’s preparedness to host the umpteen New Year’s Eve parties on Sunday, post Mumbai’s Kamala Mills fire, which took 14 lives at an upscale pub on the intervening night of Thursday-Friday. Concerns are being raised about similar commercial complexes that are functioning without security and fire clearances in Delhi.
The national capital will host a number of parties over the weekend, most of which are being organised at cafés and clubs frequented by a young crowd. Lack of concern in monitoring commercial spaces has turned these areas into ticking bombs waiting to burst. Authorities in Delhi are trying their best to ensure that no calamities befall the city on Sunday night-Monday early morning.
To take stock of the situation, The Sunday Guardian visited some of the most popular party haunts in Delhi to see whether the existing structures were equipped with proper fire safety measures. Hauz Khas Village, one of the most popular party spots for the national capital’s young crowd, is teeming with cafés and pubs that have been opened randomly in already dilapidated structures, posing great threats to the safety of partygoers.
Most of the cafés have been built without proper planning, often rising several storeys, one on top of the other. The venues have narrow passageways, with a single gate being used for both entry and exit. They also do not have any evacuation plan laid out. The narrow alleys have cars parked on both sides, making it difficult for fire engines to reach the cafés in case of emergencies.
When asked, the spokesperson of the South Delhi Municipal Council (SDMC), told The Sunday Guardian, “We do periodic checks of all the restaurants in our area. The health, fire and building departments carry out inspections following which licences are renewed. Recently, we along with Delhi Pollution Control Committee have suspended the licences of 12 restaurants. There is nothing to worry about. Everything is safe.”
The condition is similar even in the posh Khan Market in Lutyens Delhi. The new style cafés and restaurants in Khan Market are all located in old buildings, making the structures weak under the weight of generators, water tanks, etc.
The Khan Market Trader’s Association sent frantic messages to all restaurant and bar owners following the Mumbai incident and called a meeting on Saturday to take stock of the situation. Shop owners in Connaught Place too have raised concerns along similar lines. The cafés and restaurants there too tell the grim story of how fire and other safety norms have been ignored and violated by the owners of these establishments.
Earlier in February, when a part of a building collapsed in Connaught Place, the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) ordered a detailed enquiry and a safety and security audit of all the buildings in the area. It then decided to ban 21 restaurants in Connaught Place from using their rooftops for any commercial activity. It also sent notices to the identified restaurants, which include Lord of the Drinks, Warehouse Café, Vault Café, Farzi Café, Teddy Boy, among many others. However, even though 10 months have passed, NDMC has not been able to table its report on the action taken. The NDMC had then observed that the shop owners were illegally overloading the old building terraces with generators, water tanks and heavy diesel drums, among other things.
Some of the shops here even have more than one generators parked on their terrace. The first floors of the buildings in Connaught Place were made for residential purposes, but they now host commercial establishments, causing unnecessary stress to these old colonial structures.
The fear of getting trapped in an emergency situation without anywhere to escape has affected the mood of the partygoers. As Akash, a 26-year-old chartered accountant said, “We go to these cafés and bars to have a good time. If we do not feel safe why will we want to visit such places? If a person is intoxicated and a fire breaks out at the bar, how will that person be able to escape? The owners should be held accountable for the safety of their customers.”
The NDMC bars the use of terraces or balconies of heritage buildings for any kind of commercial activities.
In fact, it is not just commercial buildings, but even the National Disaster Management Authority building lacks fire certificate clearances from Delhi Fire Services (DFS), according to the information provided by DFS on its website. Even government buildings like the CGO Complex, North Block, DRDO headquarters, Cabinet Secretariat Lodhi Road, Paryavaran Bhavan lack fire certificate clearances. The buildings housing prestigious educational institutions like IIT Delhi (main building), Jawaharlal Nehru University campus (library, among other buildings), IGNOU Madan Garhi campus, etc, also lack fire safety clearances.