No words can be adequate to condemn most strongly the complete and callous flouting of rules by hotels with impunity which is squarely and solely responsible for such hotel blaze as we saw just recently in Hotel Arpit Palace in Karol Bagh which ultimately resulted in the killing of 17 people for no fault of theirs! Their only fault was that they trusted the big name of the hotel in New Delhi’s Karol Bagh and paid for it with their invaluable lives! Time and again we see such innumerable incidents happening yet everything is soon forgotten only for another incident to revive those unpalatable memories again with a more bad taste perhaps in many such cases!
Needless to say, the permanent and painful loss suffered by the near and dear ones of those killed is beyond words to describe and is irreparable! No money announced as compensation can ever be enough to compensate the lives of those who have died! But both Centre and State Government feel proud to announce quick compensation but do nothing to frame strictest rules to ensure that no one dare again violate safety norms in hotels and lodging homes!
To be sure, a fire is suspected to have been triggered by an electrical short circuit that engulfed a hotel named Arpit Palace that killed at least 17 people including an IRS officer and the chef who tried to escape from the blaze by jumping off the five-storey building. A woman from Myanmar were among the many who were injured while jumping to escape the fire. A hydraulic skylift was later used to rescue the trapped guests and staff.
No doubt, the casualty figure went up as people were asleep when the fire broke out! What further compounded the tragedy was that as people got up after hearing noise and went down they found the door to be locked and they could not find any safe passage to go out! There were 53 people in the 45-room hotel which had a canopy on the terrace housing what appeared to be a restaurant.
As it turned out, a massive fire swept through a four-floor hotel in Central Delhi’s Karol Bagh in Hotel Arpit Palace in early wee hours of morning. The blaze, in which 35 people were injured and 17 killed started in the second floor of the Arpit Palace Hotel around 3.30 am and most of the guests in hotel were asleep and were caught completely off the guard! Most of those who died lost their lives because of suffocation. Suresh Kumar who was an Indian Revenue Officer and hailed from Panchkula town in Haryana was among the 17 people who died in the fire that engulfed a five-storey hotel in Delhi’s Karol Bagh area before dawn. Suresh Kumar was posted as Assistant Commissioner in the GST (Goods and Services Tax) wing of the Revenue Department in Delhi. Suresh jumped to escape fire but succumbed to injuries sustained from the fall!
According to Delhi police, and fire services, the hotel flouted a number of rules. We shall briefly discuss some of the major lapses. They are as follows: –
1. The rooftop restaurant was illegally constructed and this was the major cause of the fire that broke out.
2. The entry to the rooftop was closed to obtain NOC (No Objection Certificate) from the fire department in December 2017, but it was illegally reopened later.
3. A restaurant and a kitchen were illegally operating on the rooftop and without a straw of doubt this was what contributed most to the fire engulfing so rapidly all over the hotel.
4. A temporary structure was constructed on the rooftop using fibre sheets.
5. The lone emergency exit at the back of the guest house were found blocked.
6. There were extra floors constructed.
7. The height is above 15 metres.
8. No panic alarm at any place in the hotel.
9. No proper signage towards the hotel emergency exit was on display.
10. Plastic and other inflammable material used on the walls and partition of walls and in the rooftop restaurant contributed in a big manner in spreading of fire.
11. No safety arrangements for the hotel’s guests.
12. Storage and cooking activities also found operating in basement.
13. High use of smoke-causing material such as asbestos inside the building.
14. Use of compressed sawdust in woodwork, which easily catches fire and helps spreads it.
15. Hose pips were not connected to sources of water and fire extinguishers were non-functional.
16. Modification in the original design of the guesthouse led to blockade of ventilation outlets.
17. Fire exits were used for staff passage and used to be locked after midnight.
18. The hotel owner began violations on the terrace or the fifth floor after it obtained a fire clearance in December 2014 as fire NOC is valid for three years.
19. The stairs were not wide enough to allow more than two people from running together and that led to stampede and people fell on each other.
20. There were no lights inside the building which made it more difficult for people to find a way out.
Even the Supreme Court appointed monitoring committee had observed that unauthorized construction had increased in Karol Bagh since the last sealing drive in 2007. It found that basements and terrace have extended structures. Storage and cooking activities were also found in basements.
It is a crying national shame that even 22 years after the Uphaar cinema hall fire tragedy of 1997 that killed 59 people still the Hotel Arpit Palace staff had no training on how to use the fire fighting equipment. Police informed the court that the owners had illegally constructed a “bar-cum-restaurant” on the rooftop and further covered it with fibre sheets that began melting in the heat. This should never have been done at the first place!
Simply put, the crime branch submitted that, “Many people were forced to jump despite reaching the terrace and two died because of this”. The police also told the court that due to illegally constructed restro-bar, many were forced to jump from the terrace and two died because of the jump. It also informed the court that Rakesh Goel and his brother Shardendu Goel, in whose name the license was issued were well aware of the irregularities committed in the functioning of the hotel. Deputy Commissioner of Police (Central) Mandeep Singh Randhawa said a case under Section 304 (Punishment fopr culpable homicide not amounting to murder) and 308 (Attempt to commit culpable homicide) of the Indian Penal Code has been registered. He also said that, “Manager Rajendra and General Manager Vikas have been arrested. Owner Shubhendu Goyal is absconding.”
Going forward, the police also told the court that the manager and the general manager disclosed the day-to-day affairs to the Goel brothers and both of them are well aware of the irregularities committed in the functioning of the hotel. The fire safety certificates of 14 more hotels in Central Delhi’s Karol Bagh area were suspended after teams from the Delhi Fire Services conducted a drive to check the safety norms in hotels. A total of 98 hotels were inspected.
It must be brought out here that the property in question where fire occurred which is famously called Hotel Arpit Palace was actually not a hotel and had a licence issued by police that allowed only boarding and lodging facilities. Then how was hotel operating with impunity? Why didn’t police take action promptly? The lives of many could have been saved had the police acted promptly!
Not stopping here, North MCD Mayor Adesh Gupta said the Hotel Arpit Palace which came up in 1993 was an “unauthorized construction” and was “booked” in 1993-1994 but the hotel continued operations and practically became untouchable once the Delhi Laws (Special Provision) Act came into effect in 2006. What is incomprehensible is that even if for the sake of argument we accept that the Act came in the way of sealing the hotel yet why did the civic body did not penalize the hotel for height violations and for illegally running commercial operations on the terrace? People will keep dying as long as such illegal activities for the sake of making quick money is not stopped forthwith permanently!
What is most disconcerting is that almost all such guest houses in Karol Bagh and the rest of the city also add a kitchen quietly which is otherwise prohibited in such establishments by obtaining a licence for a restaurant they run from the same building. Fire officials revealed that the owners of Hotel Arpit made multiple kitchens, including an illegal one also on the rooftop. They also revealed that this rooftop kitchen, along with other modifications did not show up in the last fire safety inspection conducted in 2017.
It is most distressing and disquieting to learn that both police and municipal officials blatantly and brazenly handed out renewal certificates without carrying out proper inspection as required and without noticing the open and flagrant violation of all rules and norms and flagging violations of the same in their report. The fire inspection certification holds good for a period of three years and the municipal corporation issued the health licence that is renewed every year. The guilty police and municipal officials must be punished most strictly and dismissed from service and sent behind bars so that no one again dares to break rules without any fear of law!
Why do governments wake up only after the tragedy in which many innocents lose their life? Why is everything soon forgotten thereafter? Why in India there is no value of human life? Why politicians become happy after announcing compensation of few lakhs of rupees? Why is corruption not punishable with either life or death and same for those who violate rules which endangers the lives and safety of others?
Truth be told, just enacting rules are not enough! They must be implemented also strictly. Those who break rules must be punished most strictly! We all know too well how the Bawana factory fire in 2018 killed as many people as the Hotel Arpit fire now. The Bawana factory was registered as a plastic manufacturing unit but was used to package firecrackers illegally!
It is well known that for factories there is the building code that envisages elaborate safety norms. But here again any unit which works out of a covered area of less than 250 square metres on all floors is completely exempted from seeking a fire safety certificate! Why? Don’t we know all too well that many of the factories that are in news headlines for catching fire in Delhi fall in the exempted category? Why still are they exempted? Why are they not brought out from the exempted category?
Why are surprise inspections not carried out time and again? Why when once the fire safety licence is granted do we see that there is just no inspection until and unless it comes up for renewal three years later? Why is fire department working with just 40% of the sanctioned staff strength and not 100%?
Why where multiple agencies are entrusted with the onerous task of issuing a number of licences do we see that there is rarely ever a joint on-site inspection at regular intervals as was commendably suggested by none other than the Law Commission of India in a 2012 consultation paper on manmade disasters? Why Centre and State Government display a nonchalant approach on such a serious issue? Why can’t they become more serious?
To put it succinctly, why is it ignored that in this 2012 consultation paper it had sought the scrutiny of buildings right at the construction stage and not just after they were completed and yet why no action taken by any government on it? More to the point, this 2012 consultation paper asked for “mandatory re-inspections at specified intervals” which must be laid down either in the rules or by way of administrative instructions. On surprise inspections, Neelam Krishnamoorthy from the Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy said that, “The authorities could begin by conducting surprise inspections. It is the only way to ensure that whatever fire safety apparatus that is found installed at the time of certification is in a working condition.” Still why are such landmark and laudable suggestions not implemented forthwith? Why annual reviews are not mandated by law? The government has a lot of explaining to do on this! It must be done at least now forthwith as it brooks no delay anymore!
Sanjeev Sirohi, Advocate,
s/o Col BPS Sirohi,
A 82, Defence Enclave,
Sardhana Road, Kankerkhera,
Meerut – 250001, Uttar Pradesh.