The Kamala Mills Fire, and Other Accidents Waiting to Happen

In central Mumbai's metamorphosis from an old working-class area to a rich people’s playground, zoning laws and safety regulations have been ignored.

A view from the street after a fire broke out in a building in Mumbai on Friday. Credit: PTI

A view from the street after a fire broke out in a building in Mumbai on Friday. Credit: PTI


Mumbai: On the face of it, the stampede at the Elphinstone Road railway station in September 2017 and last week’s fire in a upscale rooftop bar are totally different and unconnected mishaps. But the roots of the tragedies are interlinked – they happened in the old mill district of Mumbai which is now home to chrome and steel buildings, offices, expensive tower blocks, malls and tony restaurants. In this metamorphosis from an old working-class area to a rich people’s playground, zoning laws and safety regulations have been ignored.

Serving as corporate spaces for many multinational companies and media houses during the day time, its landscape transforms into a heady party space by the evening. These otherwise dull-looking office spaces suddenly turn lively, with people visiting pubs and restaurants which have come up in the recent years. Central Mumbai, where Kamala Mills and Elphinstone Road are, is now a favourite hangout for both office-goers and college youngsters. The mix-use means that at no time is the area uncrowded. During its heyday as a mill district, the ebb and flow was linked to mill shifts and at night there was hardly anyone there.

This transformation, however, has not been smooth. The 14 deaths in the early hours of December 28 at a high-end restaurant, 1Above, in the Kamala Mills compound in Lower Parel is only a grim reminder of this haphazard conversion. The sprawling 37-acre compound is now bursting at the seams and several major restaurant companies have opened outlets here; but little or no fundamental alteration was made to the space. In Kamala Mills as well as other former industrial spaces, restaurants and high-end bars operate in former storage spaces, where alterations such as making emergency exits are simply not possible.

Movement in these former mills is restricted. Only in Kamala Mills, where at least 35 restaurants operate, cars are constantly dropping off customers. In other places, there is no room for one car to pass, forget a fire engine. The building are in terribly crammed spaces and sticking to each other, and the number of exits is far from enough. The victims at 1Above were unable to make their way outside and were asphyxiated while taking shelter in toilets.

Civic authorities have gone on a demolition spree against irregular extensions and structures in restaurants all over Mumbai, but it now emerges that 1Above was given a fire safety certificate barely a week before the tragedy. That there is corruption in the civic body is well known, but owners too want to take the easy way out instead of genuinely looking for ways to improve safety. “Had they done their duty and acted against the restaurant for flouting norms, this would not have happened,” civic chief Ajoy Mehta said.

But the problem is not just at the implementation level, policies too are flawed. Soon after the November 26, 2008 terror attacks in the city, an eight-member committee led by former IAS officer N.V. Mirani was set up to take stock of security measures in the city. In its six-volume report, the committee dealt with ‘fire’ as a separate topic and recommended guidelines to make buildings in the city explosive-resistant to avert fire mishaps. “These recommendations were to be implemented on an urgent basis,” said I.C. Sisodiya, a former vigilance officer of the municipal corporation. He further added, “The committee had submitted a detailed manual on fire safety directives. Regular auditing and evaluation of buildings against fire hazards due to electrical short circuits was one of its most crucial recommendations.” The committee recommended that the security staff should be trained to fight fire. Mock drills were also to be carried out.

But this is more an exception than the rule. The owner of a small café in the Raghuvanshi Mills building in the area said, “We have two fire extinguishers here. But my staff is not trained to handle them.” The reason, she said, is that fire drills are never conducted. “Hygiene and food quality is within our control and we take full care of it. But the fire drill needs to be done by specialised teams and at a regular intervals. We don’t have the know-how and have never got any instructions from the fire brigade on handling fire,” she claimed.

Madhav Pai, India director of the WRI Ross Centre for Sustainable Cities, claims one cannot look at the recent tragedy in isolation. It goes back to the 1990s, when mills were shutting down and the government, through a series of decisions, allowed mill owners to commercially exploit their properties without any concern for civic good.

People try to rescue those stuck in the stampede on the Parel-Elphinstone foot over bridge. Credit: PTI/Files

People try to rescue those stuck in the stampede on the Parel-Elphinstone foot over bridge. Credit: PTI/Files

A committee led by by town planner and architect Charles Correa had suggested keeping one-third of the available land as free space; this was overridden as the the mill owners won a challenge to this change in the Supreme Court. Of the nearly 600 acres in the mills, only a small percentage was set aside for homes for former mill workers; the rest was for free commercial exploitation. Within a few short years, the entire Lower Parel-Elphinstone area changed, with shiny new structures coming up and a demographic shift that sidelined the old workers. The area’s infrastructure just couldn’t handle it: traffic jams are routine and huge numbers of people pour out of the trains every few minutes, whether day and night.

But it is not just the cramped conditions that are responsible. The complete lack of safety protocols and the poor enforcement of the few regulations that do exist play a big role in such tragedies. R.A. Venkitachalam, an advisor at the Centre for Safety Engineering, IIT Gandhinagar, says that the raw material widely used in designing most of the newly set- up office and restaurant spaces make them highly prone to fire accidents. “The calorific value of the raw material used is much higher and when fire breaks, and with no ventilation, people are bound to choke. Almost 90% deaths in fire accidents occur due to inhaling toxic gases,” Venkitachalam said.

According to the National Crime Record Bureau, a total of 18,450 cases of fire accidents were reported in India in 2015, with 1,193 persons injured and 17,700 killed. A majority of the fire accidents were reported in Maharashtra, accounting for 22% of the total number. Mumbai remains a major contributor to this statistic. In Mumbai alone, according to the data, 223 persons died in fire incidents in 2015. In the last ten years, 3,781 persons have died in the city because of this cause.

In a rapidly-growing city like Mumbai with a population of over 20 million, growth of commercial spaces and urban centres are inevitable. When commercial spaces shifted from south to central Mumbai over a decade ago, the burden shifted onto the existing infrastructure. “The stampede at Elphinstone railway station is a classic example of that. I do not see any difference in what happened at the railway station and what happened at the restaurant. The only difference is one was in the public realm and other in a private space,” Pai said.

For Mumbai citizens, the sudden burst of activity on the part of civic authorities to demolish illegal structures is all too familiar. It is a knee-jerk reaction to show that something is being done. Soon enough, things will return to normal – both owners and the authorities will lapse into their usual way of doing things. Until the basics – fire drills, infrastructure changes such as fire exits, up to date fire fighting equipment – are attended to, there are fears that more such tragedies will happen.