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Mumbai's parking perils hamper an already weak fire-fighting and rescue services

On Thursday night, when a fire broke out in Sargam Society, firemen could not drive fire tenders inside the building premises and had to physically climb 14 floors for rescue operations. 

Mumbai's parking perils hamper an already weak fire-fighting and rescue services
The open plot outside Sargam Society is packed with cars (Photo: Hemant Padalkar/DNA)

Amit Srivastava

Sargam Society has 148 flats, but parking provision for barely 60 vehicles, including the open parking area. Which means the dwellers' vehicles spill on to the access road, blocking access of crucial vehicles – such as fire engines and ambulances.

This is what happened on Thursday night, when a fire broke out on the 14th floor of building no 35 and extinguished five lives.

Despite the Mumbai Fire Brigade's (MFB) best efforts, firemen could not drive fire tenders inside the building premises and had to physically climb 14 floors for rescue operations. As the fire broke out at night, most of the open space was blocked by cars and two-wheelers.

"Vehicles were parked till the entry gate," says P G Dudhal, additional deputy fire officer (Chembur). "Residents came out and they started removing vehicles. Even those parked in the narrow lane leading to the society were pulled up by residents to the footpath to make way for the fire engine."

A weak and non-functioning fire-fighting system had already hindered first response efforts, before illegal parking impacted rescue measures. Some cars are even parked touching electric meter boxes, in clear violation of fire safety norms.

"The little open space near electric meter box was sold as parking," says Nilesh Joshi, a resident, adding that when he bought the home in 2008, he was told that the society had a small garden. However, the builder reportedly built a 15-floor tower in the spot.

Furthermore, the society's fire-fighting system is not connected to a dedicated water tank. "We installed a fire extinguisher outside every flat at our own cost," says Shankar Lanke, another resident. Dudhal says his team found it difficult to control the fire due to limited availability of water. "We connected the hose to water tankers, and climbed up to the 14th floor to douse the fire," he said.

In the mean time, Tilak Nagar police have booked three partners of the development firm, Reliance Realtors, for the alleged negligence in following safety protocol that resulted in the blaze — Hemendra Mapara, Subhak Mapara and a Mr Kothari. The trio have been booked under relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code pertaining to Culpable homicide, not amounting to murder, Act endangering life or personal safety of others and Mischief causing damage to property.

According to BMC officials, the developers finished construction of building number 35 in 2014 but did not install fire safety units. Moreover, the refuge area on the 15th floor was connected to another wing, which is against the rules.

Meanwhile, MHADA has asked a senior official from the Chembur division to look into the incident and submit a report. "Our officials visited the building on Friday morning but it was still under the fire officer's supervision," says Dilip Garje MHADA's executive engineer. "We will be looking into all the aspects of the building -- whether it had an Occupation certificate and whether all fire norms were followed; we'll also check the fire NOC. The report will be submitted to Chief Officer of MHADA's Mumbai Board."

Ravi Raja -- Leader of Opposition in the BMC — cried foul against the civic body's apathy towards fire safety. He said that Sargam society had informed BMC and the fire brigade almost a year ago that their fire fighting system was not functional. "No notices were served, and no inspection was carried out. It is high time that the BMC holds its officers accountable," demanded Raja.

P Chauhan, assistant municipal commissioner of M west ward said that since the society was redeveloped by MHADA in 2014, they have written to the body suggesting complete inquiry and further action."