New Delhi: Manish Lakra, 36, was waiting for a cup of tea after his afternoon nap last Friday when his wife rushed out of the kitchen and told him she could smell something burning in their building in West Delhi’s Mundka.
Lakra then called his driver, who was downstairs at the family’s real estate outlet, to check on the situation, according to eyewitnesses. The driver ran towards the entrance on the side, saw smoke, and alerted Lakra.
That’s when Lakra, the owner of the building, realised that escape for him, his wife, two children, and mother would be difficult, given that there was only a single exit, a source in the Delhi Police said. So, he called his elder brother, who entered from the adjacent building and helped the family cross over and climb down to safety, the source added.
Back in the building, which also housed a company and manufacturing unit, trapped victims screamed for help, but they would have to wait a lot longer for it to come — 27 of them would die in the process, casualties not just of the fire but of negligence on multiple fronts.
Lakra was likely well aware of this. It is not known whether he called the police or fire department after his escape, but he went on the run from Friday evening until he was finally nabbed Sunday. The police are yet to trace his family.
His tenants, brothers Harsh and Varun Goel, who owned the business — Cope Impex — that occupied three floors of the building were also arrested.
An FIR has been registered at Mundka Police station under various IPC sections, including 304 (causing death by negligence), 308 (attempt to commit culpable homicide), and 120B (party to criminal conspiracy).
It is believed that the fire was sparked due to a short circuit, although the exact cause is to be ascertained. Speaking to ThePrint, Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP), Outer District, Sameer Sharma described the scene inside the building, which had no emergency exits and did not have a no-objection certificate (NOC) from the fire department.
“There was changeover switchboard on the first floor for electricity connection. Cardboard and other materials were dumped in the same place, which may have caused the fire to spread quickly. Forensic reports will make it clearer,” the DCP said.
Preliminary investigations, he added, revealed that the building was “congested due to storage as well as assembling units for CCTV and routers” in addition to work stations and offices.
“Steel sheets were used to separate the staircase. There are also partitions inside the building that were used as storage as well,” the officer added.
Even as the probe continues, a squabble has broken out between the AAP and the BJP about Lakra’s affiliations and any political patronage he might have enjoyed that allowed him to flout safety norms in the building.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has alleged that Lakra had ties with the BJP, which the party has refuted. The BJP, meanwhile, has countered that the AAP government in Delhi should bear some responsibility because of a state-owned liquor shop it opened on the premises in 2019, leading briefly to the building being sealed.
In what has also become a point of controversy, Mundka BJP candidate Master Azad Singh had rented a floor of the building in 2015 before the Delhi assembly polls.
Mundka के लाल डोरा क्षेत्र में Illegal Building बनी
बिल्डिंग का मालिक Manish Manish Lakra BJP नेता
बिल्डिंग में BJP MP Parvesh Verma के चाचा Azad Singh का Campaign Office था
2016 में MCD के Assistant Commissioner ने ही Illegal Activity के लिए NOC दी
— Aam Aadmi Party Delhi (@AAPDelhi) May 18, 2022
When asked if he knew Lakra, the BJP leader said: “Of course I know him. Is it now wrong to know people of the same village? He would often visit my office and home. Many people do.” BJP leaders, however, have denied that Lakra was a member of the party.
ThePrint spoke to police sources, eyewitnesses, and neighbours to piece together the controversy around Manish Lakra and his role in the tragedy of 13 May.
A school dropout, landlord
The Lakra family has been living in Mundka for decades and run a real estate business, according to neighbours and police sources.
The building that burned as well as the one next to it had both been built by Manish Lakra’s father, Baljeet, about a decade ago. The patriarch, the police source quoted above said, had taken a loan of Rs 9 crore to carry out the construction, but sold one building a few years ago.
“They sold the neighbouring building some years back for Rs 6.5 crore. A loan amount of Rs 1 crore is still to be repaid,” the source said, adding that Manish Lakra got ownership of the building after his father died in 2015.
A school dropout, Manish Lakra subsisted largely on rental income. Sources said that the Goels paid Rs 1,30,000 as rent for three floors of the building, while Lakra inhabited the top floor with his wife, two children, and mother.
After the family escaped, Lakra absconded alone, spending time at a temple in Haryana, and with plans to go to the holy town of Haridwar later, the police have said.
These location choices seem to be in line with what acquaintances say about him.
“He would start his day by feeding chapatis to cows. He would only have the first meal of the day after he fed them and then went to the nearby temple. In the evening he would feed the dogs of the area,” his business partner Sunny Yadav said, adding that he only joined his office 15 days ago.
“He wouldn’t sit in his office for more than two hours,” Yadav said, maintaining that he wasn’t a “close friend of the Lakras”.
The last time that Yadav saw Lakra was when the fire was already blazing. “He waved at me from the other building’s terrace [to show that he was fine]. We nodded at each other, and then he went away,” Yadav said.
The police have yet to release an image of Manish Lakra for fear of vigilante justice, but in Mundka, his neighbours seem almost sympathetic.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a neighbour said: “A lot of people have illegal buildings. This is all an accident, but society needs a villain… he isn’t the only one at fault. It is also the corrupt system.”
ThePrint spoke to at least 20 neighbours of Lakra, all of whom acknowledged the tragic turn of events but added that he isn’t the only one to blame.
“His own children were in danger, what could he have done? What if a mob turned violent and killed him?” a local schoolteacher said.
Another neighbour, a driver, had good memories of evening strolls and conversations. “We would all discuss politics,” he said.
However, what is becoming more and more evident is that the Mundka building was a disaster waiting to happen.
‘Death-trap building’ — how protocols were tossed
Building owner Manish Lakra as well as his tenants, the Goel brothers, appear to have paid little heed to safety norms — there were no emergency exits, no fire NOC, and the conditions inside were congested and unsafe as well.
The ill-fated structure was built in 2011, but according to a senior official of the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC), no sanction of the building plan was applied for. Lakra also allegedly did not pay any property tax.
“The building was being used for industrial purposes, which is not allowed in Lal Dora areas. No valid factory licence has been issued to the factory, at this location. The department is not aware of the owner obtaining fire NOC from the Fire Department,” a senior NDMC official said.
“Lal Dora” (literally, red tape) areas refer to village lands in Delhi. Factories and industries aren’t permitted in these zones, although shops are.
Atul Garg, Delhi Fire Services Director, confirmed that the building had no fire NOC, even though it is mandatory for buildings with a height of over 15 metres to have one in order to obtain a BSES power connection. Investigators are now probing how Lakra managed to get an electricity connection.
“Some people provide fake NOCs. We have issued notices in the past,” a senior fire official said.
DCP Sameer Sharma said that the police have sent letters to 10 agencies, including the BSES, to verify all documents of the building.
This, though, is not the first time that the Mundka building has come to the notice of the authorities.
In 2011, it was booked twice by the Najafgarh Zone of the civic body. “Such buildings can be demolished after they are booked and served notices,” an NDMC official explained. That did not happen, however.
On Tuesday, the NDMC suspended three officials — licensing inspector Sandeep Kaushik, general branch section officer S.K. Sharma, and house tax department section officer BR Meena. “[There] appears to be laxity on the part of the officials…” the NDMC said in a statement.
In addition, showcause notices have been issued to the deputy assessor and collector, and joint accessor and collector of the Narela zone. Disciplinary action has also been initiated against the then area junior engineer of the building department who had been posted from January to December 2011, when the construction took place.
In 2019, the building again came close to being put of operation. Lakra paid conversion charges from 2016-2018 for the 209.60 square metre ground floor for running a liquor store after self-assessment. The premises were sealed in January 2019 after directions from a monitoring committee appointed by the Supreme Court. It was de-sealed in July 2019 after the floor was emptied and vacated.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)