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Did back up batteries cause Mantralaya fire?

Public Works Department head Chhagan Bhujbal has stirred a hornet’s nest. Livid with reports that his department was at fault for the poor upkeep and failure to maintain fire-fighting equipment, which exacerbated the fire at Mantralaya on Thursday, he has asked some uncomfortable questions of the general administration department (GAD), headed by Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan. “We are responsible for the maintenance of the state HQ, and major decisions, from the allotment of space to departments to permission for the renovation of offices and the funds required for their upkeep are taken by the GAD,” he said.


Workers are busy erecting a pandal for temporary offices on the road connecting Mantralaya and Vidhan Bhavan after the fire on Thursday. Pic/ Shadab Khan 

According to Bhujbal, his department had complied with 31 out of 32 recommendations suggested by the fire safety audit conducted in 2008. “The proposal on installing fire sprinklers was ready and awaiting a sanction for Rs 10 crore,” he said.

Reacting to reports that the fire brigade had to wait until vehicles parked haphazardly in the compound were moved around to make space, he contended, “The audit says space close to the building should always be vacant, but that is not our responsibility. How we can ask departments to keep passages and corridors free of cupboards when GAD supervises the allotment of space? We were given just Rs 1 crore for the Rs 26 crore project of augmentation of wiring and various cables in the building.”

He also said that a private firm and retired engineers from the state government have opined that the Mantralaya building was safe after conducting a structural audit.

Meanwhile, senior PWD officials said the cause of the fire is not a short circuit as is being cited, but batteries kept as a back up for power supply for the server room located on the fourth floor. The batteries emit hydrogen gas which is inflammable, said the officer, adding that before the fire broke out on Thursday, a blast was confirmed by the urban development department officers.

The manner in which the fire spread also makes it certain that it was due to a gas leak, he added, saying, “The electrical wiring at Mantralaya has been done using modern techniques, so the chances of a short circuit are low.” This new theory puts the onus of the incident on the information technology department, which is responsible for the upkeep of the server room.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Front government is working overnight to resume its business on Monday at Mantralaya. Chavan and his deputy Ajit Pawar will start working from their temporary offices at the Mantralaya annexure from tomorrow.

The state headquarters will resume work except on parts of the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th floor. The departments affected by the blaze are being given space made available at GT Hospital and MTNL telephone exchange building near Cooperage ground. “At least 500 people have been working round the clock to set up the required infrastructure,” Bhujbal said.

To accommodate the state government offices from Mantralaya, the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners offices, the office of the state election commission will be asked to shift to GT Hospital building where eight floors are being spruced up, he added. 

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