Nearly 26 years ago, at 4.55 p.m. a swirling mass of thick, smoke engulfed the balcony section of a well-known Uphaar cinema hall in south Delhi’s Green Park.
In the absence of fire exits and ushers to help the patrons, the people seated on the balcony found themselves trapped. By 7 p.m., 59 people of 28 families had died of asphyxiation while 103 were injured in the resulting stampede.
Well, an incident that took two years before the Uphaar tragedy is an unpopular one. Like after every other disaster, people grieved and eventually, it healed and faded.
In 1995, the DAV Public School in Mandi Dabwali in Sirsa district of Haryana was celebrating its annual day function at the Rajiv Marriage Palace. Little did they care about policing, precautions, and fire codes. Some 1,500 people tried to escape through the single exit door after the place caught fire. Over 400 children died that day.
But have Delhiites gotten rid of the danger of recurring fire incidents? From Uphaar to Mundka to Narela and now Bhagirath Palace, the city continues to witness frequent fire incidents, killing innocents.
Every time the irked citizens ask: “Why aren’t the authorities strict enough to ensure the implementation of the fire safety measures in Delhi?”
After the Uphaar tragedy that took place in 1997, two years later, a chemical factory at Lal Kuan in Old Delhi caught fire, killing 57 people.
In 2011, 14 people were killed and over 30 injured in a fire at a community function of eunuchs in Nand Nagri.
In 2017, fire gutted two rooftop restaurants in Kamala Mills, in central Mumbai’s Lower Parel, killing 14 people.
The year 2018 was the worst of all as incidents of fire occurred thrice that year. A fire in a factory in Bawana Industrial Area, which was manufacturing firecrackers without a licence, killed 17 workers in January; four members of a family, including two minors, were killed in a fire at Kohat Enclave in April and four people were killed and one injured in a blaze at a factory in Karol Bagh in November.
In February 2019, a fire caused by a short-circuit in the air conditioner in a room at Hotel Arpit Palace in Karol Bagh killed 17 people. The hotel did not have a fire No Objection Certificate (NOC).
The same year, in December, 43 labourers trapped inside a five-story residential building, which had some illegal units running on its premises, were killed in a blaze at Old Delhi’s Anaj Mandi.
In 2021, six workers were killed in a fire at a shoe factory in west Delhi’s Udyog Nagar.
Talking about last year, since January, more than 10 fire incidents had taken place. A factory in northeast Delhi’s Gokulpuri caught fire on March 12 and enveloped the nearby shanties, killing seven people, including three minors and a pregnant woman. The Mundka fire in May claimed 27 lives.
However, no lessons seem to have been learnt. There are several fire-prone areas in the city where factories are being operated in residential areas. The units continue to grow unchecked in many parts of Delhi.
There are certain hubs in the city like Nehru Place’s computer market, Karol Bagh’s jewellery shops, Paharganj’s budget-friendly hotels, Panchkuian Road’s furniture market, and more that are vulnerable places. These are so full of vendors and congested streets that emergency vehicles like fire tenders and ambulances cannot access them.
Although the judiciary has issued notices and orders to take action against all the illegally running factories, there was a recent factory mishap in the narrow lanes of Bhagirath Palace market in old Delhi. Around 150 shops were gutted while four buildings collapsed partially after a massive fire had broken out.
Another fire broke out in Delhi’s Narela last month. The factory where six people died and 14 were injured in a fire on November 1 had no licence under the Factories Act.
On December 1, around 10 vehicles caught fire in Sadar Bazar.
In 2017, the Delhi High Court observed that the Hauz Khas Village in south Delhi is a ticking time bomb. The court had also observed that neither the government agencies nor the restaurant owners of the area have responded to its queries on safety and other issues.
The conclusion is that even though some fire safety measures are being maintained here and there, the capital might not be ready to fight another fire accident. Small fire outbreaks keep happening in the town but a lot of them are also not reported.
It is important to make sure that fire safety measures are adopted by all cinema halls, commercial hubs, malls, among others.
“We urge people to take the necessary precautions to protect themselves when they’re in public buildings like malls, theatres, hospitals, and restaurants. Most people don’t consider fire a significant risk, and complacency is one of the greatest dangers when it comes to fire safety. No one ever thinks it will happen to them – until it does. Fires can and do happen and people need to be prepared in the event of one,” said Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, authors of the book ‘Trial by Fire’, based on the Uphaar Tragedy, where the couple lost their two teenaged children.