“She was just a child,” said Dhananjoy Pal. “If she had lived, she would have been 21.”
Pal was talking about his daughter. Aged fourteen, she suffocated to death in the Advanced Medical Research Institute (AMRI) Hospital in Dhakuria, an area of West Bengal state capital. A fire broke out in the early hours of December 9, 2011. By the time the fire was extinguished, 94 people had perished and family members of the deceased were being taken to a nearby hospital to identify bodies.
The fire started because of a short circuit, but its spread was enabled by the storage of flammable materials in the hospital’s basement. As one report noted, the basement “had [been] converted into a storehouse”, stockpiling “empty and filled up LPG cylinders, torn mattresses, and wooden boxes.” This was flagged up in September and hospital officials were given until December 5th to comply with orders to clear the basement of unsafe materials. December 5th came and the materials remained in the basement. Four days later, the fire broke out.
The flagrant violation of fire safety laws resulted in sixteen people facing trial on charges of culpable homicide. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee called the tragedy “an unforgivable crime.” Almost eight years after that tragedy, has India learned from the errors and negligence which allowed it to happen?
The answer, it seems, is no.
“In almost three years, hospitals in the state have not learned their lessons on fire safety as the OFS’s investigation has shown. The same is true of many other states in India – and what is dispiriting is that even when tragedies occur, hospitals fail to learn from them.”
This week, in Odisha, an investigation by Odisha Fire Services (OFS) of fifteen hospitals in Bhubaneswar found that only five had fire safety certificates. Some of the hospitals surveyed did not even have a fire extinguisher. And the cause of the tragedy in Kolkata – unsafe storage of materials in basements – was rife. “Many hospitals have converted their basements into godowns of unserviceable utility materials, posing a high risk to the lives of patients and staff,” said B. K. Sharma, the Director-General of Police. “The hospitals failed to meet even the basic fire-safety requirements.”
Odisha has its own lessons to learn about fire safety. The 1,200-bed SUM Medical College Hospital in Bhubaneswar caught fire on the evening of October 17, 2016, killing 24 people and injuring more than 120.
That incident, as Down to Earth reported at the time, “reflected negligence in hospital management” and served as a reminder that “most fire incidents in the country [spiral] out of control due to lack of precautionary measures, improper safety measures and failure to deal with emergency situation.” In almost three years, hospitals in the state have not learned their lessons on fire safety as the OFS’s investigation has shown. The same is true of many other states in India – and what is dispiriting is that even when tragedies occur, hospitals fail to learn from them.
This is a national crisis. As put by Outlook India, “hospitals are…tinder boxes where the lack of fire safety measures snuff out life.” Lack of compliance with fire safety regulations means patients are regularly admitted to facilities where they are at risk of burning or suffocating to death because the mechanisms to prevent such occurrences are inadequate and unenforced and staff are ill-prepared.
Hospitals, designated as institutional buildings, should be issued with no-objection certificates (NoCs) when it comes to fire safety by law. It is shocking how many are not. This leads to lives being lost.
In 2015, 48 people died in fire-related accidents every day. Hospitals should provide an environment where patients feel safe from this occurrence, yet tragically they are not. The onus is on regulators and watchdogs to be vigilant, look out for fire safety lapses and ensure that hospitals which do not meet guidelines either comply or are closed.