Denying public safety


    The vague buzz in the media over a bookstall collapsing at the ongoing Imphal Book Fair and subtle efforts to literally cover up the incident is disturbing. Earlier the scaffolding of some stalls fell apart eventually leading to the collapse of bookstalls at the same book fair in 2010. Both the incidents bring home the fact that public safety norms are often flouted in Manipur in almost every sphere. There is no dearth of instances where the safety of people and property have been compromised; be it in the form of major and minor fire breaking out, collapse of retaining walls and bank embankments and roads with ever widening pot holes. Over the past few years, it has become common to see incidences of fire outbreaks happening in different parts of the state. This month alone has already seen devastating fires at Lilong Bazaar, two cases at Thangal Bazaar apart from minor fire outbreaks at residential areas. Yet, such cases are not first time incidents but are rather turning to be repetitive and leaving those unaffected by the fire, with only a sense of déjà vu and nothing else. Earlier in 2009, a fire outbreak that started from Galaxy School near Ukhrul Higher Secondary School ground, Wino Bazaar in Ukhrul district, left over 10 houses gutted and resulted in major loss of property.

    So far, Manipur has not seen major fire calamities claiming lives on the scale of the Uphaar Fire tragedy in 1997 or the AMRI hospital fire tragedy in Kolkata that took place in 2011. The infamous Uphaar tragedy took place in a cinema hall where over 200 people were watching a Hindi film when an electricity transformer burst and spread to the basement parking area and then raging further on to the five-storey building that housed the cinema theatre. Despite 48 fire tenders being pressed into service, it took an hour to control the fire and 59 people died mainly because of suffocation. It took years for investigations and legal sentencing to happen in the case but what emerged from the incident was that most public buildings in the country were flouting safety guidelines in terms of installing fire exits and ensuring fire control. The Uphaar tragedy ought to have alerted Government bodies and private enterprises responsible for constructing public spaces and infrastructure. But no lessons it seems were learnt, given the AMRI Hospital case in 2001 in which 91 people, including members of the hospital staff died due to asphyxiation when medical waste and other flammable substances kept in the basement of the building caught fire due to an electric short circuit.

    Given the number of large scale constructions coming up in Imphal: the Manipur Film Development Corporation (MFDC), the Convention Center and the new State Assembly to name a few, along with Government buildings and other offices and private hospitals and clinics, there is a strong need to strictly regulate how buildings and other infrastructure are being constructed. Meanwhile, the sight of a fire tender at the recent Sangai Tourism Festival in Imphal did not inspire much confidence in terms of being disaster ready. The vehicle remained parked in one corner of the festival ground, which was crammed with narrow paths. There was no way that it could have done much in case a fire did break out which fortunately did not happen. The beginning of fire safety drills at educational institutions in the state is welcome indeed but needs to be designed such that different age groups gets to understand their role in preventing and avoiding fire break outs and how to cope in case it does break out. Along with this education on fire safety, there must be mechanisms to intervene so that fire can be controlled. While constructions of buildings in Manipur’s market areas need to factor in passages with enough space for fire tenders to reach, there must be strict guidelines for fire extinguishers to be fitted in schools, hospitals, shopping areas, banks and such. To ensure that guidelines are followed, punitive fines and other measures need to be in place.


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