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Fire alert: Putting cost before safety

In his words: "I am just a professional writer, which means I don't do blogs and try and get money for whatever I write."
Published : Sep 16, 2017, 3:15 am IST
Updated : Sep 16, 2017, 3:15 am IST

Writing approvingly of someone can mean you like his or her acts or creations — or it could mean that they are dead.

A view of an apartment in the Grenfell Tower after fire engulfed the 24-storey building, in London. (Photo: AP)
 A view of an apartment in the Grenfell Tower after fire engulfed the 24-storey building, in London. (Photo: AP)

“A fast food outlet
Pretends to sell
falooda
It’s not quite authentic
I could say something cruder —
The loving hand is absent
From its essence-induced flavour
Mum’s
falooda was much
better
From the recipe grandma gave her”

From The Dialectic of Taking Liberties by Bachchoo

Writing approvingly of someone can mean you like his or her acts or creations — or it could mean that they are dead. Contrary to what Shakespeare said the good that men do lives after them, the evil is oft interred with their bones or it goes up in flames and with us Parsis, ends up as vulture excreta.

These thoughts are prompted by a jolting revelation about an Indian friend, famous for many things, but not this distinction in a field which I never knew he’d ploughed.

How did the jolt come about? The leading story on Thursday last in London was the opening of the inquiry into what has been labelled the Grenfell Disaster.

On June 14, 2017, a 24-storey building containing 129 flats in North Kensington, London caught fire. It started, the forensics say, on the fourth floor from a faulty fridge-freezer and spread rapidly, gutting the building and killing at least 80 people and grievously injuring a hundred more. The fire took fire-engines and fire-fighters from all over London three days to extinguish.

The building was owned by the local Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and had been recently renovated with cladding fixed to the outer walls to give it what was deemed a smart finish. This cladding has now been proved to be riskily inflammable and the cause of the rapid spread.

The flats were occupied, as is most municipally owned “social housing”, by families with low or no income and are cheaper than housing rented by private landlords. Most of the families living in Grenfell Towers were immigrants, some of them relatively recent refugees to the country.

After the disaster the Kensington and Chelsea Council were held in some measure, by the survivors, responsible for not carrying out the necessary safety checks or installing fire-safety technology and for contracting the dangerously inflammable cladding for the building.

The Council was also accused of a tardy effort at rehousing the now homeless families.

Investigations by the Council, the police and fire authorities still can’t put a definitive figure on the number of dead, or name and identify all of them, as there were inadequate records of who and how many actually occupied the flats.

One unpleasant, even criminal fact that emerged was that some of the occupants of Grenfell, who had legally assigned tenancies, had moved out of their flats and sublet them illegally to people who then didn’t appear on any Council register and were possibly amongst the untraceable dead. Some of these scoundrels applied for rehousing because not applying would point to them having moved out and criminally sublet the properties for profit.

Now on September 14, the government initiated inquiry into the disaster had its first day. The inquiry has already been under fire from the survivors of Grenfell and their supporters for not having a deep or broad-enough brief. It is not surprising that they are demanding that the inquiry cover aspects of the Council’s negligence through the years and even that it examine the possibility that there was corruption involved in the issuing of contracts for the refurbishment and provision of cladding for the building.

The appointment of the chairman of the inquiry, an Appeal Court judge called Sir Martin Moore-Bick was challenged by the survivors of Grenfell on various grounds. They asked for his removal and the appointment of someone who they said was closer to understanding the life of the families who lived there.

Their arguments and plea were dismissed and Sir Martin began the inquiry by laying out his interpretation of his brief. He would examine how such a disaster could take place in a developed country in this century. He said he would not shy away from enquiring into acts, negligence and conduct that could lead to prosecutions. This would mean an investigation into why the Council had not installed fire-safety technology such as sprinklers which would detect and extinguish a blaze immediately and prevent its spread.

On the eve of the inquiry the media published the fact that only two per cent of high-rise buildings, the “social housing” owned by Councils and Housing Associations, are equipped with comprehensive fire-detection and sprinkler systems. Fire brigade chiefs all over Britain responded by calling for an immediate retrospective fitting of such systems to all social housing.

What India can boast is that it had, years ago, passed a law making fire safety fittings, such as smoke detectors, sprinklers and positive air pressure technology, compulsory in all new multi-storey buildings.

The pioneer of this engineering work, before it became law is one Anil Dharker, the friend to whom I alluded and whose name I now disclose. I didn’t know Anil graduated from London University as a mechanical engineer and then went on to the staff of Glasgow University and specialised in Building Services Technology.

He returned to India, joined a building firm and pioneered the installation of fire safety installation in multi-storey buildings.

Gosh! I first encountered Anil years ago as a sort of pornographer — I mean he edited Debonair magazine, an Indian version of Playboy for which his predecessor and then Anil asked me to write a regular column. Anil moved on to brilliantly edit several newspapers and magazines (none of them with picture of scantily clad women, I hasten to add) and now he runs literary events under the aegis of his creation Literature Live and is founder and head honcho of the Mumbai literature festival and has even invited the likes of me a few times to speak and launch my books.

His Wikipedia page says so many other distinctive things — literary, cinematic and journalistic. But of course none of these saves lives.

Tags: grenfell disaster, fire-fighters, fire safety technology