Why did Crawford Market burn?

Published: Nov 27, 2011, 08:06 IST | Hemal Ashar

Mumbai Fire Chief feels powerless, says action against offenders impossible as Sara-Sahara Mall is disputed property, and was filled with encroachers

Mumbai Fire Chief feels powerless, says action against offenders impossible as Sara-Sahara Mall is disputed property, and was filled with encroachers

The fire at Crawford Market that blazed in the wee hours of Saturday may have been extinguished, but the burning question remains: who should be held accountable for the blaze? The fire, which began at Sara-Sahara Mall around 3.40 am on Saturday, and spread to the adjoining Manish Market, Mohta Market and neighbouring areas, was put out 12 hours later by 40 fire tenders and 200 firemen. 

The fire, which broke out at Sara-Sahara Mall at around 3.40 am on
Saturday, and spread to the adjoining Manish Market and Mohta Market,
was put out 12 hours later by 40 fire tenders and 200 firemen.
pic/Santosh Nagwekar

Sara-Sahara Mall, allegedly owned by underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, is disputed property after it was demolished following a Supreme Court order in 2006. However, the police and civic administration failed to protect the area from further encroachment. Till Saturday, the Mall sold highly combustible goods including garments, perfumes, lighters and electronic equipment such as mobile phones. It also violated the law stealing electricity from the neighbourhood.

The Chief Fire Officer, who has auditory and prosecution powers following the implementation of the Maharashtra Fire Prevention and Life Safety Measures Act (2006) in 2008, hedged when Sunday MiD DAY asked him when was the last time that a fire audit was conducted at Manish Market.

Not only does Chief Fire Officer H N Mujawar have the power to take stringent action against the violators of fire safety norms, but the fire department is also expected to conduct audits of high rises and shopping malls at regular intervals.

Mujawar claimed that though the act empowers him to prosecute violators, the norms could not be applied in Manish Market. "The main problem is that most of the establishments in the gutted shopping area of Sara-Sahara Mall are occupied by encroachers. No actual individual or party can be held responsible for the construction of the mall. It will be impossible to execute any such action against the violators, even if we wanted to."

However when asked whether his department had conducted the fire audit of Manish market, Mujawar replied, "Even if we do the audit, whom do we issue the notice to? Who would take the responsibility of implementing our guidelines and installing fire safety equipment?"

Mujawar stated that while prima-facie evidence suggests that the fire was caused by a short circuit, the probe, whose result will be out in a week's time, will explore all angles, including sabotage.

"We have to record eyewitness accounts and photographs, and take circumstantial and technical evidence into consideration before we reach a conclusion on the cause of the fire. It would take at least a week for us to understand the exact cause of the fire," he said.

A senior IPS officer clarified that the BMC is the custodian of state properties, and hence the onus of implementing safety norms and keeping encroachers at bay is on the civic body.

Sunday MiD DAY contacted BMC chief Subodh Kumar, who said, "I am not in Mumbai at present. The matter is being investigated by the fire department and only after the report is submitted can I make any comment."

A brigade call
The fire emergency number 101 received a call at 3.43 am on Saturday that said that a fire was raging at Crawford Market. Within six minutes, fire engines from the neighbouring Indira Dock, Fort and Colaba fire stations reached the location. The first fire engine to reach the spot informed the control room that the fire was a big one. A 'brigade' call was made and 20 additional fire tenders were called in along with 13 water tankers and four ambulances. Fire engines were deployed from Thane, BARC, HPCL, BPCL and Navi Mumbai. In all, 40 fire fighting vehicles and over 20 lakh litres of water were used to douse the fire in an exercise that took over 12 hours.

The tankers, each of which has a capacity of between 12,000 to 18,000 litres, had dried out. The hydrant posts installed in pre-Independence India, by the British were dry, said Mujawar.

Manish Market did not have the mandatory underground water tank, he added. One of the reasons why the blaze spreading rapidly was because of the nature of goods sold in the market.

Post 26/11, the Mumbai fire department was keen to expand the number of fire stations in the city to 100 after having received Rs 20 crore for modernisation from the BMC. They have decided to approach private developers to give them 2,500 metre square area to set up new stations. They have already sent letters to Godrej and Morarjee Mills owners, and are looking for BMC-owned plots.

At present there 33 fire stations and 56 fire engines in the city.

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