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Not much learnt from the Uphaar tragedy

November 23, 2007

The judgment that everyone was waiting for has arrived (Uphaar cinema was burnt down about ten years ago in Delhi and 59 people died), but no one’s happy. Least of all the relatives of the victims because they believe the guilty got off lightly. And the wealthy Ansal brothers feel they have been needlessly implicated and are planning to file an appeal. Today (Friday) is to be the day of the sentencing. (Later: You can read about the quantum of sentences here and here. The Ansal brothers got two years rigorous imprisonment each (the maximum they could) and those convicted of culpable homicide got 7 years each)

What they got
The Ansal brothers (Sushil and Gopal) who own the theater were convicted under section 304A of the IPC (along with 3 government officials) for causing death of cine-goers by their rash and negligent act under which the maximum punishment is 2 years.
Two Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) officials and a Delhi Fire Service officer were held guilty under sections 304A and 337 and 338 of the IPC (endangering human lives.) These officials gave a no-objection certificates’ to the theater.
Three Delhi Electricity Board officials and four others (employees of the Ansals who managed the theater on a daily basis) got heavier punishment. They have been convicted of culpable homicide not amounting to murder under Section 304 of the IPC, which carries a the maximum punishment of a life term.

Shockingly, not only was the theater not equipped properly, there were irregularities in electrical connections and to top it all – the gangway and doors to exit stairs at the venue were closed.

The One and Only lesson learnt
The question that everyone is asking is: What lessons have been learnt from the Uphaar tragedy?
Lesson number ONE: Those in authority have learnt to pay lip service.
Lesson ONLY: Those in authority know that they need to carry out checks, but mostly if someone’s looking!!

The ground reality…
isn’t good. On live television I saw a clip from a citizen journalist, a woman who had lost two children in the Uphaar tragedy. A hidden camera revealed that the emergency staircase in a high rise building was blocked and the fire-fighting equipment defunct. I am sure that any of us can walk into randomly chosen buildings and we will get to see similar sights. Avoid the swanky buildings ofcourse. It’s the older buildings which are in a terrible state…many don’t even have emergency staircases because fire prevention measures need to be taken during construction (using fire resistant materials, sprinklers, smoke detectors installed, easy availability of water, broad staircases about 8-12 feet wide). Older buildings do not have any of these things and nor do quite a few of the newer ones. And we are talking only of big cities here. The situation is worse in smaller places.

But that should be all the more reason why building owners need to be extra vigilant isn’t it? But this logic escapes the owners. Because alas, it is left to the owners. As it says here:

Though the National Building Code put together by the Centre provides detailed guidelines, fire safety is a state subject and many states have not made it mandatory.

Have things improved?
We keep hearing that they have…but I find it hard to believe…uh…maybe they have improved as compared to what it was like earlier. And now people at least know what they should do, even if most actually don’t. But there is hope because the impending Commonwealth Games has got Delhi working overtime to get things done on time! International visitors need to be impressed, right? And things are actually looking up. The Delhi Fire Prevention and Safety Act, 1986, which was to be replaced by Delhi Fire Services Act will see the light of day at the end of this year. It’s been pending since 1999!

My experience
Recently, I went to see Om Shanti Om at theater number 6 at Mulund’s PVR Cinema, one of the better cinema halls. When we were trooping out, I noticed that only half of the exit door on the left was open. There was a huge rush to get out (only two doors on either side of the screen were opened as is the norm) and this resulted in a human traffic jam. I tried to open the half-closed door which led into a passage (see diagram on the right) and to my surprise found that even though it was not locked, it was of no use opening it as it would have blocked the main door which led out from the passage onto the staircase. The two doors (the exit door from the cinema hall and the exit door from the passage into the stairwell) were touching each other at right angles! This exit door could not be blocked at any cost as people from both the exits of the cinema hall were using it to get out of the theater.

What is the point of doors if they are not usable? I think it’s pretty easy to fix this problem. Can’t the door be made to open on the inside or made into a sliding door? Nobody will do it because all they need to do is to ‘show’ the authorities that they have ‘wide’ doors. Showing is important – that’s the lesson learnt from the Uphaar convictions.

In fact Nirmal Lifestyles (the mall where this cinema hall is located) had a fire recently, and after this fire, authorities have gone into overdrive and are ostensibly checking whether safety rules are being followed by malls and multiplexes. I am sure they will find everything ‘in order’ in theatre number 6, if they do physically check.

Not just cinema halls
Why talk of only multiplexes and theatres? They are probably better than most. Certainly better than the fire-fighting state of hospitals, of high rise buildings, or of schools. In fact fire-safety norms are poorly followed in most schools in India. And ofcourse in our own homes.

Overall, there is a little compliance of safety norms in most places in our country. And that includes our own homes, whether apartments or bungalows.

Precautions to take
You can read about precautions you can take regarding your own building here and for safety tips to protect yourself in case of fire in hotels read this. And if you find that fire safety norms are being flouted in public places, make a complaint.

(All pics are linked to the originals except the diagram which is made by me)

Related Reading: Do we value life in India?
How safe are we in cinemas from bombs?

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. amreekandesi permalink
    November 23, 2007 9:48 am

    As a contrast i was thinking of my office building here in newyork.
    Security is such a huge concern here that they have regular fire drills where they actually evacuate the entire building (several thousand people), make everybody carry their emergency kit(each desk has one), and assemble at designated locations outside.
    So much that is becomes a bother. But like they say – better safe than sorry.

    That would be the sort of attitude we need. Not just completing the bare minimum required to meet the laws.

  2. November 23, 2007 10:46 am

    Even when there is fire security n safety system in place.. very few people know what to do Incase of Fire. Training shall be must to each n every induvidual… and this post too helps.

  3. November 23, 2007 10:47 am

    @amreekandesi:

    Fire drills huh. That’s the advantage of living in a developed country where the value of life of an ordinary citizen is pretty high!

  4. November 23, 2007 12:20 pm

    Nita:

    ..”where the value of life of an ordinary citizen is pretty high!”

    I think it is a combination of things:

    1. Where slip-ups are possible, rules are stringently enforced through inspections and checks; so new buildings cannot be erected before plans get a once-over and old buildings have strict fire regulations imposed. Even in domestic dwellings, if a landlord wishes to let it to several students, for instance, a licence must be obtained, all room doors be replaced by fire doors which must never be kept forcibly open, fire alarms installed in all communal areas and individual rooms and annual electric safety inspections carried out.

    2. People usually do not operate with impunity and as AD said people are made aware of their rights and duties in community contexts; offices appoint first aid and fire leaders on each floor who are trained to deal with things and must be listened to, in case of an emergency. Although not all is rosy. Many American buildings – with their lifts at the centre and near the entrance – make it a game for you to locate stairwells! If they were more central people might use them regularly (my Obesity related bug bear) and stairwells located in weird corners – unless you are at a fire drill – may be missed altogether. Last summer I stayed in a high rise in Virginia for 2 months, during which time there was no fire drill and I still have no clue where the stairs were because of very poor signage; normally people will report such issues to the authorities too.)

    3. Bribery, when it happens, happens at seriously high levels not at poxy junior levels (i.e. if you have to be a thief, be a mega-burglar not a pickpocket!)

    4. The legal system works and a charged person will be brought to the courts rather soon and the case will be heard and decided.Usually without political intervention.

    Together these keep the society’s behaviour in check. It is a Nash equilibrium that has evolved with many forces in concert.

  5. November 23, 2007 12:35 pm

    I guess it’s in our nature. we take more risks ( at times when we don’t need to) like not using the helmets, seatbelts. Even the workers at construction site wont wear their safety helmets (there was an incident near my place where a worker was killed when a brick fell on his head, a precaution could have saved his life).

    It’s the same case with the theatre owner, he pays less attention in taking precautions. They keep a fire extinguisher at random places and think that it for fire safety. I am not sure how many of them are replaced at regular intervals or if the staff is trained to handle if a fire broke out. Also after the movie interval most of exits are locked from outside ( in PVR Bangalore) and they let people to walk out only through one door. This is a serious issue !!!

  6. November 23, 2007 1:40 pm

    Bharath, I think it’s a good idea to give training to everyone to operate the fire extinguishers. I would not trust some random peon to do it. As there are no specifically appointed people to do the job, then everyone should be trained.
    Shefaly, thanks for your very informed comment. I guess finally it’s the legal system which acts a deterrent as you pointed out.
    Taju, you bet it’s serious! What you told me is shocking! Locking the exit doors from the outside after the interval is simply wrong! You must complain. In fact now I am going to check out every theater I go to…the doors I mean. Maybe a written complaint would be in order. Actually I have little faith in these malls.
    And it’s not as if they can’t take precautions. They are for some strange reason lax when it comes to human life only!! When it comes to checking people for any food which they might carry inside they are extremely stringent. I have written about that here. They don’t mind if terrorists get in and blow up all of us, but they will not let a morsel of food get in, because they fear that people might not buy popcorn!!

  7. November 23, 2007 1:51 pm

    Nita, I can’t help but notice the mad rush of people toward to small Exit doors in India in big multiplexes. I don’t see any alternate emergency doors. There are absolutely no announcements at the start of the show that tell viewers how they should act in case of an emergency.

    Not only this- I’m not even sure if the Fire extinguishers even work. there are no routine checks as far as I know.

    There was this woman who had come here a couple of semesters back and she just ‘playfully’ decided to touch a fire alarm, thinking that it won’t go off. You can only imagine the uproar that must have created here in the US. The entire building was evacuated within a minute (much to my amusement) and everybody had to stand at a distance until the police and the fire engine finished checking the source of the problem.

    People need to also install smoke alarms and stuff like that…

  8. November 23, 2007 2:02 pm

    @ruhi:

    It is really dismaying. And scary! The lack of fire preparedness in India.
    I am sure that fire extinguishers in buildings only work for a while, and then they stop working because as you said no one ever checks.
    And that it’s funny, someone touching an alarm in the US playfully!🙂 I can imagine the havoc it caused…I only know what happens in America during such times because of Hollywood movies. I have never in my life ever participated in a fire drill and have no idea what it entails.

  9. November 23, 2007 2:07 pm

    Nita, Fire drills are those boring necessary things that you’ve got to do. There are maps stuck onto the walls everywhere that guide you. We also have maps that inform us about the tornado free areas in a building. All of this in a country that has the highest health care costs and one of the lowest levels of satisfaction in various health care fields (among developed countries). Look at the irony of the situation.

  10. November 23, 2007 2:24 pm

    @ Ruhi:

    “Look at the irony of the situation.”

    This is why money is not invested eagerly in prevention. It is never possible conclusively – except through abstractions and complex modelling – to demonstrate the number of lives saved by taking a simple precaution.

    Lives lost however not only are clearly evident but also make great headlines.

    Since rational humans will not invest in prevention, governments must address the issue through regulatory intervention, however unpalatable it is and however expensive. Even in the self-deterministic society of the United States, this is an expectation in some areas (if not in health).

    Thanks.

  11. November 23, 2007 2:34 pm

    Shefaly,

    You got me wrong. I made that statement because of the supposed value attached to human lives in the US. I fully support the money spent in prevention. That is the basis for lots of other famous management theories too.

    However, what I meant is that the health care costs should definitely be made more affordable for a country that places so much of importance on human lives. An average American can’t even afford a simple medical treatment. We need to wait for so long to even get hold of a doctor.

    //Even in the self-deterministic society of the United States, this is an expectation in some areas (if not in health)

    It should be an issue even in health. I don’t know why I pay my health insurance…I’m entitled to a better service for sure.

    @Nita, Sorry for dragging the discussion in some other direction. I know it’s not really pertinent to your post on fire hazards.🙂 Pls. feel free to cut it short.

  12. November 23, 2007 2:52 pm

    @Nita Exactly. they care more about taking food stuff inside the cinema halls.
    In the companies that I have worked all had occational fire drills. ( in my previous company it was so frequent that people wont even move from their desks when they hear the fire alarm)
    I guess there should be drills at the cinema halls too( NO not when a show is going on) but to train the staff so that they know what to do in case of emergencies ( and not to run for their lives).

  13. November 23, 2007 2:59 pm

    @ Ruhi:

    There are several threads in this line of argument.

    Paying health insurance is itself a pre-emptive or even preventative thing at an individual level but for-profit businesses do not invest in prevention, except where their hand is forced by law. There is in the UK a category called corporate manslaughter which holds directors responsible for avoidable deaths caused by negligence for which the fiduciary and moral responsibility rests with the directors. In the US, SOX could be considered a (somewhat extreme) preventative piece of legislation.

    However even paying for private insurance out of pocket does not encourage people to be preventative in their own lives say by making healthier lifestyle choices. It is evident from the upward trends in preventable causes of premature mortality in NHANES and BRFSS data.

    And that is where the nuanced difference between people’s attitude to “fire safety” and to “health” comes into play. The former is seen as a collective issue while the latter, in the US, is seen as an individually determined issue. The philosophical foundations or at least the dominant value systems in the societies play an influential role in how we have shaped our respective healthcare systems. Which is why a universal healthcare system idea as flogged by the Democrats is a great ideal, but it may not fly very far in the US.

    So if a majority in society, including those unfit and unhealthy, sees health as an individually determined issue, a collective mechanism of coverage will be a hard-sell. No matter how society values life.

    Nita wrote a post earlier on the value of life in India where much discussion ensued in the comments section which will interest you:
    https://nitawriter.wordpress.com/2007/10/15/do-we-not-value-life-in-india/

    (Disclosure: In my present avatar, I research comparative regulation and its impact on the evolution of strategic trajectories of industries. I focus on UK/ EU/ US. Most recently completed my PhD in decision sciences in management; Former IIM-Ahmedabad MBA and IT industry strategy professional. This may explain my cross-disciplinary examples. Thanks.).

  14. November 23, 2007 3:20 pm

    @Shefaly,

    //Paying health insurance is itself a pre-emptive or even preventative thing at an individual level but for-profit businesses do not invest in prevention, except where their hand is forced by law.

    I don’t understand how this statement is relevant to my comment.

    //In the US, SOX could be considered a (somewhat extreme) preventative piece of legislation.

    I beg to differ. In the light of all the recent accounting scandals (Enron, WorldCom and the likes), I would say that SOX is a very imp. piece of legislation, however burdensome and costly it might be. Its cost might not be justfiable either.

    //However even paying for private insurance out of pocket does not encourage people to be preventative in their own lives say by making healthier lifestyle choices.

    Of course. But I don’t know what exactly you’re trying to say here. I only commented on the quality of health care and the costs associated with it.

    I was not talking about a collective coverage mechanism at all. You seem to have drawn your own conclusions.

    Anyway, thank you for the short discussion.

  15. November 23, 2007 4:09 pm

    Fire inspection to be made mandatory in Tamil Nadu schools:

    http://www.hindu.com/2007/11/23/stories/2007112362291700.htm

  16. November 23, 2007 4:22 pm

    @ruhi: These are all related subjects in the sense of value of life, so you are welcome to discuss it! In fact it’s a very interesting and lively discussion!
    Unfortunately your last comment went into moderation (I have some words on my moderation list) and I am still trying to figure out which word it was!

    Taju
    , thanks.🙂

  17. November 23, 2007 5:09 pm

    @ Ruhi:

    The key point you raised was about ‘value of life’.

    However how value of life plays into various bits of life – including ‘fire safety’ and ‘health’ – and how these bits of life are regulated depends how society frames those problems as in ‘whose responsibility they are’. That was my point.

    When something is seen as a collective issue and where market mechanisms have no incentive to resolve/ deal with it, regulators step in. When something is seen as an individual issue, regulators leave it alone although they do provide for adequate protection of individuals. Fire safety is the former kind; health the latter kind – in the US. So I am afraid in your second comment on this post, you refer to the two kinds of issues without making this distinction and that is what I was aiming to point out. The example of health was irrelevant in that sense.

    From your observation on healthcare costs, there were two possible pathways –
    1. that you are saying coverage quality is not justifiable by cost (which you mention in the second comment) or
    2. that you are suggesting the costs are excessive.

    I assumed you meant the latter because there was nothing to suggest the former in your earlier comment. Besides, if some people still cannot afford insurance, surely some people’s value-of-life is greater than that of others. So I “seem to have drawn my own conclusions” is right but this was my thought process and I do not think it is internally inconsistent or invalid.

    Your note on the ‘short discussion’ is interesting, because it is the best way to shut a discussion down🙂 To which I have no objection. There is no point in having a conversation where the argument is lost.

  18. anon permalink
    November 23, 2007 6:07 pm

    I live in the U.S. Whenever I visit Mumbai I feel alarmed by the cages that people build outside their windows. These cages are made out of iron grills and in homes where severe space crunch is the norm, they provide a few precious sqft of space to hang clothes, and to store buckets etc.

    What bothers me is this: if there is a fire and the main entrance is blocked, the people in the apts will have no way of escaping because the cages block the exits through windows. In almost all cases that I have checked, there isn’t even a door in the cage that one might open in an emergency – they are permanently shut.

    I have asked the residents if they don’t feel concerned, and have been amazed that they uniformly express confidence that such an event is not likely to happen. I think they tend to see me as a spoilt America-returned curmedgeon.

    Nita, I urge you to research this issue and raise public awareness. In my view this is a more urgent issue than movie theaters and malls, because it has to do with people’s homes – places where they spend significant portions of their lives, and where old people and babies/children live.

  19. November 23, 2007 9:16 pm

    They don’t mind if terrorists get in and blow up all of us, but they will not let a morsel of food get in, because they fear that people might not buy popcorn!!

    Nita, good post. As someone who has first-hand knowledge of behind-the-scenes working of theaters/cinemas, the reason for this policy is very simple – contrary to popular belief, the theaters primarily make their profits by selling food (popcorn, drinks, candy, samosa). A huge chunk of the money generated from ticket sales goes back to the distributors/studios/producers, and the cinema owners get to keep very little percentage of the ticket sales.

  20. November 23, 2007 10:20 pm

    @Amit:

    Thanks Amit. I didn’t know theatres depend that heavily on food sales although I did supect food sales were an important source of revenue.
    But I still think their attitude is short-sighted! Because if the theater burns down they will have to pay a lot more! I don’t know why human beings need regulations from government and a fear of law to follow basic safety rules. Is it that they think it’s a small risk? I can understand if people thought so 50 years ago but today with so many flammable materials and other modern electronic gadgets the dangers are multi-fold! Also one is not there to monitor every single thing, and things can go wrong.
    And there will invariably be many lives lost because theatres are crowded with people and this means compensation.
    I know that if I owned a theater I would go that extra mile to keep people safe, for my own selfish reasons!

  21. November 23, 2007 10:30 pm

    Nita, I agree with you on the safety concerns and fire risks. My comment was somewhat tangential to the discussion, and was related to the reason behind food policy in many theaters, because I think that’s a very common misconception.🙂

  22. November 23, 2007 11:02 pm

    @anon:

    Anon, yes these apartments have only one exit and that is dangerous. It is a good idea you have given me and shall definitely research it! Thanks for pointing it out…sometimes even the most obvious things escape us. But I think the solution should be another exit as removing the bars can be a hazard in the sense of thieves.

  23. November 23, 2007 11:07 pm

    //From your observation on healthcare costs, there were two possible pathways –
    1. that you are saying coverage quality is not justifiable by cost (which you mention in the second comment) or
    2. that you are suggesting the costs are excessive.

    I assumed you meant the latter because there was nothing to suggest the former in your earlier comment.

    I actually meant both the statements. They are not mutually exclusive; so I don’t find any reason to believe in statement # 1 and not in # 2 or vice versa. This is why I have a problem with your line of reasoning.

    //. Besides, if some people still cannot afford insurance, surely some people’s value-of-life is greater than that of others.

    That’s your line of thinking and perhaps what the media teaches- A person’s life who pays the insurance is more valuable than a person’s life who doesn’t play insurance? Wow.

    Then why bother saving all the poor people in the world at all?

    It was a simple comment and even a simpler observation. There was no need to throw in Economics jargon, IMO.

    // There is no point in having a conversation where the argument is lost.

    Oh you do. Your last statement proved it.

    I said that because clearly we have diff. viewpoints. It’s not necessary for you to agree with me or vice versa. It’s called “voluntarily walking away from an argument”. Howevermuch you might want to try convince me, I won’t get convinced and howevermuch I might try to convince you…it won’t work. Hence the statement.

  24. November 23, 2007 11:10 pm

    Oh forgot to add- You indeed drew your own conclusions without explaining the premises of your argument.

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