Friday, December 9, 2011


An urban hazard

The Indian Express editorial,
Posted: Sat Dec 10 2011, 00:28 hrs
The courage of human individuals — selfless neighbours and professional fire personnel — can save a few lives. But to keep the story confined to that does not preclude the “next time” another set of neighbours and fire personnel is called upon to break through the tangled mesh of non-existent or unenforced regulations, violations of safety norms and the lack of fire-fighting equipment. It will take a while to ascertain the precise cause of the fire at the AMRI hospital in southern Kolkata on Friday morning that killed nearabout 90 people, most of them patients. For the moment, the hospital’s licence stands cancelled and the police have registered a case under Section 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) against the hospital. This wasn’t the first major incidence of fire at the said hospital — there was an earlier one in 2008 — but this tragedy is as much urban India’s classic nightmare scenario as it is an over-familiar Kolkata story.

First, Kolkata. The eastern metropolis is a textbook case of urban mess, where what was built more than a century ago has been built upon without an eye to the foundation, where the city has sprawled outwards and inwards without any anticipation of civic needs, or in complete disregard of the same. It is a case of a space constraint and a “time-pressure”. As a result, much of Kolkata has been likened to a Tarkovsky film, where “thought-images” — from a collective, rather than individual, consciousness — gather up past and present and bundle them together, sans logic but not without a rhythm of the macabre. That was what had unfolded in the devastating Stephen Court fire in Park Street last year. That is what we saw again at the AMRI on Friday. Only, one was a heritage building, the other a modern healthcare institution. The entities that connect the two are legal anomalies, an utter lack of reform and a curiosity called the fire ministry (which may send in firemen without harnesses or keep essential equipment outside the city).

Second, India needs to dismantle antiquated regulations and embark on upgrade or overhaul of city infrastructure as the need may be. Every city may not be as relatively under-invested in urban services as Kolkata, but large-scale fire hazards are not confined in time and space. Finally, only holding the hospital authorities accountable is not going to prevent another tragedy unless civic reform and its enforcement are attended to.

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