Kamala Mills blaze: Activists feel Chief Fire Officer holds too much power

Updated: 20 January, 2018 12:11 IST | Vinod Kumar Menon | Mumbai

He is Mumbai's chief fire officer; he is also the director of the state fire services, making him his own boss. Activists now ask: how can the same man objectively assess his own handling of the Kamala Mills fire?

P S Rahangdale, chief fire officer
P S Rahangdale, chief fire officer

While BMC chief Ajoy Mehta was quick to release the inquiry report on the Kamala Mills blaze, activists have attacked the very validity of the report. They have pointed fingers not only at Mehta, but also at the fire brigade chief, P S Rahangdale, both of whom have managed to escape all responsibility. This is not because they are blameless, say activists, but because they hold a monopoly on all the power.

Activists questioned how Rahangdale gave a sequence of events during the blaze though he was on leave at the time
Activists questioned how Rahangdale gave a sequence of events during the blaze though he was on leave at the time

According to activists, it is no coincidence that BMC boss Ajoy Mehta escaped without blame, since he is the one who led the inquiry. "The very act of the civic commissioner heading such a fact-finding committee, even when the CM had assured us of a judicial probe into the fire incident, raises serious concern," said Advocate Godfrey Pimenta of the Watchdog Foundation.

Also read - Kamala Mills fire: 2 weeks on, demolished eateries back and buzzing

The fire brigade pointed out several safety lapses at Kamala Mills, leading to the fire on December 29. File pic
The fire brigade pointed out several safety lapses at Kamala Mills, leading to the fire on December 29. File pic

Pimenta raised the same concerns about Chief Fire Officer (CFO) PS Rahangdale. "The second major issue in the report are the sections titled Investigation Report of Chief Fire Officer and Sequence of Events by CFO. These narrate observations of eyewitnesses, along with details of combustible materials at the site. But how can the report mention an account from the CFO when he was on leave and wasn't even at the spot?" questioned Pimenta.

"These sections do not state that the CFO was on leave and that, in his absence, his deputy officer conducted the probe, which may have direct or indirect impact on the trial," he added.

Too much power for one man
But the problem goes far deeper that the Kamala Mills issue alone. According to several activists, the lapses start from the top down, right from the top fire officer, Rahangdale. Pimenta pointed out that Rahangdale was not only the CFO of Mumbai, but also held the additional charge of director of the Directorate of Maharashtra Fire Services (DMFS).

"This is unheard of; if the CFO holds the post of state fire director too, then who will point out Mumbai fire brigade's lapses in the Kamala Mills blaze?" asked Pimenta, adding, "Moreover, the director is an advisor to the state government, and this post is senior to the CFO's post. How can a CFO take a superior charge as director and be advisor to the government for the entire state?"

According to Pimenta, if someone else had held the post of state fire director, then he or she could have made an independent probe into the departmental lapses that were mentioned by many eyewitnesses in the Kamala Mills inferno. However, there is no reason why Rahangdale would conduct a probe against his men or himself.

Interestingly, the director is also the appellate authority in cases where an aggrieved party wishes to challenge an order by the CFO. Only one such appeal is allowed in each case, but if both posts are held by the same person, it raises serious concerns about the misuse of power and miscarriage of justice. The aggrieved party will be left with no option but to move court in such cases.

Miscarriage of justice
Nitai Mehta, founder-director of Praja Foundation, said, "It is absolutely absurd on the part of the civic chief to head the probe when his own office is in the wrong. This is against the principal of natural justice."

"It is a known fact that BMC staffers were not supposed to grant permissions without requisite checks and measures, but instead they overlooked the norms so their palms would be greased. The fire safety audit, had it been conducted on the field, rather than merely having it on paper, would not only have averted the disaster at Kamala Mills, but would have had larger preventive impact across the city and state. Also, the CFO holding two offices is bizarre and unheard of." James John, of AGNI, shared similar views: "When the civic commissioner and other senior civic officials need to be questioned, Ajoy Mehta cannot head the probe himself.

And if the CM had directed Ajoy Mehta to carry out a probe, as stated in the report, then Mehta should have excused himself. Merely taking action against 10 subordinates, and making few recommendations to prevent future incidence, only shows that Mehta was attempting to divert public attention from the core issue."

Pimenta has decided to take up the matter of Rahangdale's double posting before the Lokayukta on January 31, when there is to be a hearing on his other complaint about Mehta heading the Kamala Mills inquiry.

The other side
Manisha Mahiskar, principal secretary, Urban Development department (II), said, "In the past, we had made an effort to appoint a full time director, but only three to four applications were received. We found that the CFO had the best fire-fighting experience, so we offered him the post. He was not interested in the post, so we offered him additional charge as director." This still does not explain why Rahangdale has held the post for the last three years. Mahiskar added, "The government is keen to have a full-time director, and are in the process of looking for suitable, experienced fire officers. The post will be filled soon."

Prabhat S Rahangdale, chief fire officer, said, "Whatever responsibility was given to me as a CFO, Mumbai, and additional charge as director, DMFS, I have done my job with utmost honesty and sincerity. I do not wish to make any other statement." Numerous attempts to contact BMC chief Ajoy Mehta did not yield any result.

Expert speak
Criminal Lawyer Dinesh Tiwari said, "The report submitted by the civic chief on Kamala Mills has evidentiary value in the criminal proceedings during the trial. Lapses in the report may benefit the accused and can even derail the prosecution's case."

No. of BMC staffers facing inquiry

No. of BMC staffers suspended

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First Published: 20 January, 2018 08:30 IST

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