Kamala Mills fire is a tragedy that will keep repeating

Ease of doing business needs facilitation, but only legal ones, otherwise ease of living becomes hogwash.

 |  5-minute read |   06-01-2018
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Politics is about fooling all the people almost all the time, especially when there are monumental failures of governance, the best way to gloss over them is by paying lip service to the need to improve things.

Since this rarely cuts any ice, with the media, an eyewash campaign is mounted to show determination to root out inefficiency, the corrupt and enforce accountability, all in the future tense, with no acceptance of responsibility for the present failures.

Make no mistake, this is the mantra for creating the illusion of performance by all political parties, irrespective of ideology. An illusion, where some politicians succeed more than others, whose turn will also come. How else could a fire accident in a Mumbai building wreak such terrible havoc? It is fair to say that an accident can and does happen, but had fire and building safety norms been observed, it would have been a mere short-circuit instead of so many loss of lives. All because we do not live by the rules we make.

The municipal authorities are willing to overlook any of their own rules for a price, we the people find the rules as an unnecessary inconvenience and are willing to pay the price for erasing the inconvenience. The anomaly is noted only when it assumes fatal proportions.

There were 18 restaurants functioning after obtaining licences from the corporation. None of the licensing conditions were complied with and all safety norms were violated. It would not have been a horrifying story, had it been an isolated instance. Such things happen all over the country, in every city. All bye-laws and safety requirements are essentially decorative and enabling of the exploitative city management.

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Hue and cry happens when a disaster of the size of Kamla Mills hits us. Life returns to its perilous normal after the media-induced condolence period is over. We wait, until the next accident or disaster, as it inevitably must happen. Except all of us will keep going as if we are sure that it will not happen to us, but to the next person. Illogical though this thinking is, it enables us to disregard all safety protocols, even where they exist.

Let us not mistake the fact, but we have laws and bye-laws for all manner of commercial activities. Licences are prescribed before any business could be started. For hospitality businesses, we have the whole gamut of permissions, fire, pollution, excise, health, explosive, police permissions, name it and there is a licence prescribed for it.

To top it all, these are annually renewable and before you obtain the last one, they become due again. You need to have effluent treatment facilities. To get all these licences, one needs to have a completion certificate for the building itself. And the irony of it all, we are supposed to have climbed a few rungs in the ranks of ease of doing business.

The only way, truly the only way, to get these municipal and police clearances is through a well-connected middle man whose service is available for a fee. The only profession that does not need a licence or a qualification is that of the ubiquitous middle man, the man who really makes the ease of doing business really worth the weight in his fees.

It needs no imagination to comprehend that licences or permissions when obtained through these "good" offices and influence peddling, no compliance is needed, neither at the start nor in continuance of businesses. Questions get raised only when a Kamala Mills (Mumbai), or Uphaar Cinema (Delhi), or a Dabwali (Sirsa) happens. The Kamala Mills story has been scripted many times earlier and practically for the same reasons of negligence and non-enforcement of safety laws.

Like the famous Bourbons who learnt nothing from history, we too will learn nothing from the latest Mumbai accident. There is frantic demolition, registration of criminal cases against owners and multitude of lame excuses, supplemented by copious crocodile tears from the political class, some accountability hooks into the lowest functionaries of the official apparatus topped with sympathy for the dead. All will be forgotten in a fortnight. And an orchestrated eyewash will be the management mantra to dilute the culpability of the guilty persons.

As a people, we are not safety conscious, nor are we ready to be willing to be regulated if the conditions of compliance are onerous, or not convenient. Look at the use of any public space. Roads or highways, access to common facilities, queues to buy tickets or board planes, everywhere we seek to "adjust", "arrange", or "manage". This has to be at the risk of bypassing the prescribed protocols and while every risk may not lead to an accident, there will be one that will lead to disaster. A continued and consistent negligence will inherently have fatal consequences, be it today or tomorrow or another day, but it will, without doubt have a telling one. We see it on the roads, we see it in our railways, we see it in our city structures, we see it in our rivers.

So, from where can we import a culture of honest law enforcement and willing compliance with prescribed regimen? It definitely will not permeate into our body politic, nor can this mutual exchange of favours with price tags work as a substitute for governance. No market in the world sells this culture. What is more galling is that the one on the straight and narrow path has to pay a higher price to receive the legitimate due of public service.

This is extreme distortion of the political mandates and a grave breach of faith by public officials. If Kamala Mills is ever to be avoided, the criminal prosecution of the top hierarchy must happen. We failed Uphaar victims, we failed Dabwali victims, and many others. If innocent people die merely because they were present in licensed premises, then those entrusted with the duty to properly license must be made to pay for their acts of omission.

The tendency to short-circuit regulation is causing flagrant short-circuits. Ease of doing business needs facilitation, yes but only legal ones, otherwise, the ease of living becomes hogwash.

Also read: Kamala Mills fire in Mumbai shows nobody cares for safety

 

 

Writer

RMS Liberhan RMS Liberhan

Former director, India Habitat Centre and a former civil servant and writes on public issues.

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