If you're heading to the Mount Mary Fair which starts today, know that your safety is the last thing on the minds of the organisers or the fire department.
There are merely five fire exits at the venue. Worse, they are hardly that. One ‘fire exit’ leads to a dense hedge (see 3), while another leads to the locked gate of a private housing society (see 2). The third ‘fire exit’ leads to a narrow lane in a nearby slum (see 4), and is barely wide enough to accommodate one person — let alone thousands who may be fleeing for their lives. Although the road later opens into a clearing, there is no road to then get out of the expanse. The fourth ‘fire exit’ opens into a vacant plot which is blocked on three sides (see 5). One side is blocked by a slum, the second ends in a small hill and the third has a wall. The last fire exit goes via the toilets located behind the Church (see 1). Though the escape route is fairly large, it leads to a locked gate with only a narrow side entrance for escape. This route eventually leads to Mount Mary Road, where thousands of pilgrims will be on their way up, in the opposite direction of the people escaping in case of emergency — a sure recipe for chaos.
Opens into a vacant plot which is blocked on three sides. One side is blocked by a slum, the second ends in a small hill and the third has a wall. Pics/ Sayed Sameer Abedi
Passing the buck
On Friday, SMD investigated the abysmal safety measures, and the pictures speak for themselves.
Meanwhile, both the church and fire authorities are busy passing the buck, each holding the other responsible for people’s safety.
When contacted, Abhay Kale, fire officer at Bandra police station who has been managing the fair’s events for several years, said, “The Church authorities are responsible for the fire management of the fair, not me.” When SMD contacted Mount Mary Basilica committee member Vivian Pereira, he said, “You would be better off talking about the fire plan with the fire department. They give us a plan which we have to implement.” When asked whether the plans were being implemented, Pereira answered in the affirmative.
The housing society, Ashiana, is located right at the centre of the Bandra fair venue. Speaking to SMD, resident and the local ALM Secretary, Lillian Pais, said, “I got a call from a friend who told me that the backgate of our housing society had been marked as a fire exit. I couldn’t believe it. That gate is used exclusively by senior citizens living in our building going for mass every morning. When they are not using it, the gate is locked up. We do not wish to pay security personnel extra to man the gate all day because it will be too expensive for the housing society.”
No way out
Ashiana Society’s Secretary, CS Manohar, said, “We do not intend to leave the gate open at all times. Ours is a private property and not a fire exit.” Dense woods lie behind the two stalls which lie beyond the gate, making it impossible for people to pass through. However, it is still marked as a fire exit.
As per last year’s fire policy, stalls made of curtain cloth are forbidden. The policy also states that no ‘cooking, heating, roasting activity, or use of naked flame’ is allowed in or near any of the stalls — a condition flouted every year at the fair.
Clause 16 of the same policy also states, ‘hydrants along the road side should not be covered by any temporary stall or any other construction/erection.’
However, a fire hydrant located just outside the Church Steps is blocked by a makeshift police chowky constructed specially for the fair. When asked, DCP Zone IX Pratap Dighavkar denied it would be an issue. “I have visited the spot. There is a separate access available to get to the fire hydrant. It is not going to obstruct fire trucks,” he said.
The Final Policy for the fair as approved by the Bombay High Court last month makes special provisions for safety measures. It states that a fire tender will be present outside the Church, and another at Veer Jijamata Kridangan located behind the church. It directs the deputy chief hydraulic engineer to ensure all fire hydrants along the fair’s route are in working order, and calls upon stall operators and church authorities to comply with any directions issued by fire officers.
While the church can contain a few thousand people at a time, most of the crowd is spread out over a radius of two km around the church, including Kane Road, Hill Road, St John the Baptist Road, Bandstand, Mount Mary Road, Rebello Road and Bandra Reclamation. The 430 permitted stalls include 280 on Mount Mary Road (an unusually high number given how narrow the stretch is) and part of Kane Road (items of religious significance only). Twenty of these were publicly auctioned. Another 100 pitches are on St John the Baptist Road and 50 on Rebello Road.
Daily visitors: Over two lakh
Authorised pitches (stalls): 430
Authorised fire tenders: Two