How ironic is it that the same Urban Development department that in 2006 drafted the Fire Safety Act for the state has now lost a major part of its office space to a fire that its Act was supposed to have prevented?
Anyone who respects the institution of democracy is sure to rage, or at least cringe at the thought of Mantralaya burning, leaving many of its departments, files and documents in ashes. This anger stems from sensing the obvious attitude of apathy shown towards the protection of state headquarters which are just not an assembly of offices, but home to valuable documentation, which, if allowed to endure, would have provided a history of governance in Maharashtra.
The guardians of the state failed to protect a building, which is not an emblem for Maharashtra. Keeping the symbolism aside, it was the space in which our venerable ministers would work to (supposedly) protect the interests of over 10 crore people who populate the state.
If the nerve centre of the state is this vulnerable, then how safe are its common men, who have few of the amenities that this headquarter was privy to? If rules and regulations are not followed at Mantralaya, then what are the chances of them being followed in more humble dwellings?
The building is controlled by the general administration department (GAD). Any major policy decision related to the building is to be taken by GAD, whose administrative head is Chief Secretary (CS) of the state.
The building’s upkeep and maintenance is entrusted to the Public Works Department (PWD). The PWD had in June 2008 pointed put to the CS that massive interior works and changes had been made to the building by ministers and senior babus, and asked that such activities be regulated.
Subsequently, a circular was issued, asking all departments to keep the PWD in loop before any kind of cosmetic or structural changes were made. But it was too late by then, as the precedent had already been set that for such changes and renovations to be sanctioned by bodies such as CIDCO, MMRDA, MSRDC, MIDC. The funds for such changes were also provided by these state-controlled bodies, with the excuse that the government funds were not enough to meet expenses for renovations of their chambers. The contractors roped in by the bodies used to carry out massive internal changes and various permissions needed to them were meekly given by the GAD and PWD, mainly at the insistence of the concerned minister and his officials.
Even worse was the choice of ministers in occupying chambers as per their whims, often in blatant disregard of the rulebooks. Ministers are supposed to occupy chambers on the floors where their departments exist, but this rule is hardly followed.
To accommodate the sprawling chambers of ministers, space for their staff and departments gradually shrank – junior babus jostled each other in tiny cubicles, with not a square inch to offer a visitor a chair — files would be stuffed atop computer CPUs, corridors and corners were also gradually occupied by staffers, leaving no space for fire fighting equipment. Water coolers hid fire extinguishers, the boxes for hosepipes were commonly used to store sundry documents, broken tea cups and brooms.
When the fire broke out, the extinguishers just wouldn’t work, and were banged against walls in desperation. What fanned the fire was the woodwork on the walls –certificates or photographs that released poisonous fumes from the turpentine used to coat the frames. This is what suffocated and killed five. Most of the ministers and secretaries have carved out small pantries inside their chambers illegally, which contain gas stoves, refrigerators, tea and coffee vending machines. When the fire was engulfing parts of Mantralaya, nine staff members were seen bearing LPG cylinders down with them.
Not to be left behind, many of the junior babus installed air conditioning units without taking the necessary permission from the PWD’s electrical wing. In fact the top most floor of the building – the seventh floor – is completely illegal, but was constructed to accommodate the babus’ ever-growing need for space.
The GAD, headed by successive CMs over the years, has failed miserably to control rampant and whimsical alterations to the building to accommodate personal convenience. Nor has the PWD bothered to enforce an iota of control or discipline on such matters.
The government, which makes rules to safeguard its people, shamefully failed to safeguard itself. Babus, who treated the state’s assets as their personal property, have sullied democracy. The blackened façade of the building is a telling reminder of this fact.
— The writer is Political Editor, MiD DAY