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Healing house turns killer inferno

 | December 10, 2011

The Saturday edition of The Times of India screamed in its front page headline: 89 people gassed to death…

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Last September, there was a minor electrical short-circuit inside a theatre at the Venice International Film Festival. In 30 seconds, just every exit was opened, and journalists and delegates walked out. Of course, there was no fire or smoke, but a faint smell of burning rubber that alerted volunteers and others inside the auditorium.

I was amazed at this phenomenal efficiency – and the enormous concern for human safety.

In India, on the contrary, doors are always locked making it difficult or impossible to escape in the event of a fire.

In 1997, 59 men and women died and over 100 were grievously injured during a fire at Uphaar cinema in New Delhi’s upmarket Green Park. A then colleague of mine at The Hindu who was watching the film (a patriotic Hindi work, Border) could flee the theatre only because a staffer helped her out. The others were trapped inside the hall, because the exits were locked from the outside, and the staff ran away without opening the doors!

There have been other fire tragedies in India – and sadly most casualties arose, because people could not run out, and died of suffocation.

In 1995, 360 men, women and children died at a school function in Haryana’s Dabwali.

In 2004, 91 children were burnt alive in a school at Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu.

On Friday, in the very early hours of the day, 84 patients and four staffers died when the plush AMRI Hospital in Kolkata turned into a burning inferno.

Here again, the exits were locked, and people died because of asphyxia. Despite the pleas of local residents, who first noticed smoke rising from the hospital, and the relatives of patients, the security guards in the building refused to open the doors.

Some relatives had even urged the doctors on duty to allow evacuation of patients, but permission never came.

Yet, the doctors, the nurses and other employees, except for four, abandoned their posts and fled to safety later when they saw things getting out of control.

Unsafe basement

The hospital staff took the fire lightly in the beginning, waking up to the life-threatening situation 45 minutes after the blaze broke out in the hospital basement. The fire-brigade was alerted almost an hour after the blaze began, and the first engines arrived 20 minutes after that, an inordinate delay in covering a distance of four km at 2.30 in the morning on deserted roads.

The victims, mostly patients with minor health problems, died because of causes entirely preventable.

Tragically, the victims did not die from burns, but choked to death in the thick smoke that engulfed the hospital interiors. The windows were all locked, the door closed, turning the house of healing into a house of death.

In September, the hospital had been told to clean up its basement stocked with highly inflammable materials, including oxygen cylinders. The basement, meant for parking vehicles, was being used as storage space – clearly in violation of fire safety norms. The hospital did not clear the basement.

The fire reportedly began in the basement and spread rapidly through air-condition ducts.

Although six directors of the hospital have been arrested, one has seen in the past – and on innumerable occasions — how those responsible for such horrendous tragedies escape with shockingly light punishments.

In the Uphaar case, the sentence turned out to be a couple of years in jail.

Ultimately, what needs to be addressed and sorted out is the tendency to cut costs by having inadequate fire-safety equipment and measures. Faulty wiring, ineffective fire extinguishers and abysmal lack of knowledge in the case of something as catastrophic as fire are very common in India.

As newspapers reported on Saturday, there are hundreds of hospitals, cinema theatres and other public places that can turn into virtual death traps if there is a fire. These public places are waiting for calamities to happen, it seems.

The Saturday edition of The Times of India screamed in its front page headline: 89 people gassed to death…

If such roguish callousness on the part of the hospital management and staff was not enough, the Kolkata police tried resorting to a lathi charge when the crowd became hysterical at the sight of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who visited the hospital hours after the fire.

There could not have been a greater moment of shame then. How indifferent we are to loss of life, how heartlessly unfeeling, how notoriously shameless — driven as we are by the single motive of profit, greater profit and still greater profit.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at [email protected]. He is an FMT columnist.


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