Smoke continued to rise from the blackened structure Saturday morning and helpless families looking for their loved ones moved to the Sanjay Gandhi Memorial hospital at Mangolpuri where the bodies of those who died in the accident were brought.
“Green kurta, white salwar,” said one of the relatives to the civil defence staff stationed at the hospital in a desperate bid to find his family member. But the descriptions were of no use. The 27 bodies pulled out of the burnt four-floor building were charred beyond recognition.
The major fire at Mundka village, which is also the birthplace of former chief minister of Delhi, Sahib Singh Verma, has left in its wake a trail of destruction and questions.
The officials from the fire department, the police, and the North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) have confirmed that the building where the fire broke out was illegally constructed and that it didn’t have a no objection certificate (NOC) from the fire department.
The NDMC commissioner was not available for a meeting or comment.
The owner of the building, Manish Lakra, who lived on the top floor of the building, is absconding.
The other three floors of the building were rented out to brothers Harish Goel and Varun Goel, who were operating two electrical equipment manufacturing companies – Cofe Impex Private Limited and I-Clear Technologies Private Limited — from there. I-Clear was incorporated in October 2019 and Cofe, a year later, in September 2020.
The brothers, who also escaped the fire, have been arrested.
On the day of the fire, they had gathered their team of 150 employees for a meeting. The floors were also allegedly used to store CCTV cameras, wires, wifi routers and other electrical equipment which are combustible.
Employees who managed to escape the fire told ThePrint that the building had no ventilation or fire safety equipment like fire alarms and sprinklers. The only staircase was choked with smoke making it difficult for the employees to escape.
While the grieving families are coming to terms with the tragedy, there is no clarity in the offices of the municipality and fire department as to who is accountable for allowing an unsafe building to operate unnoticed for years.
Safety rules flouted
The company documents of Cofe and I-Clear show that they were using the building since 2019. ThePrint could not confirm from the NDMC if the building was inspected in the last three years or if the owner was served notices to vacate the property.
Ranjeet Singh, the deputy commissioner of NDMC, confirmed that Lakra had no license or approval to operate the building. The department has no other confirmed information yet, he added.
The law that regulates buildings may complicate things further: according to the Delhi Fire Services Act, 2007, buildings below the height of 15 metres do not need NOC from the fire department. But if the use of those buildings change, i.e., if the office or residential space is used as storage or an assembly point, then the NOC is required.
The Act lays down 12 types of buildings that need fire NOC before starting operations. These include: all buildings used for assembly and storage, underground structures, hotels and guest houses and educational buildings among others.
“These changes in land use, however, have to be self-declared by the owners of the buildings and the fire department directly cannot approve or reject. The files have to come to the department via the municipal corporation,” said a senior official at the Delhi Fire Services office who is not authorised to talk to the media.
If the use of the building changes to a category that needs clearance from the fire department, then the building must have clear access, smoke management system, fire extinguishers, first-aid hose reels, an automatic sprinkler system and exit signage among 15 other requirements.
But these declarations rarely happen.
“It is impossible for the MCD to inspect each building and see if the land is being used solely for the purpose it declared at the time of getting the approval,” explains Sunil Batta, construction expert who has worked in the sector for over four decades.
The inspection then must happen at the time of issuing the occupancy certificates, he says. “If buildings are used for offices, they must have smoke detectors and sprinklers are needed for storage spaces,” Batta says.
Similarly, all public buildings, irrespective of whether they need fire NOC, need a clear staircase.
“It is okay to have one staircase in a building depending on its height, but it must have a clear 1.5 metre width, excluding the railings and other fittings. The step height should not be more than six inches,” says Batta.
Initial information from the accident site suggests that the Mundka building allegedly had none of the safety features in place.
“If the office was collecting so many people on a floor, it should have booked an auditorium for it,” said the source in the fire department.
The onus, the fire department official says, is on the NDMC which is the authority to approve the building plans.
(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)