By terming the blaze at Kamala Mills pubs an extremely unfortunate incident, the Maharashtra CM ordered an inquiry and suspended five BMC officials.
Ashwini Priolker & Kevin Lee
It was meant to be a regular night on 28th December 2017 at Mumbai’s Kamala Mills, a hub of swanky restaurants and pubs. But just after mid-night, a roof-top restaurant was engulfed in flames and snuffed the lives out of 14 innocent people. A birthday celebration soon turned into a death trap. This incident threw the spotlight on the hazards of having multiple eating out places set up inside the erstwhile mill lands.
According to fire officers, the building in which the incident took place had no workable firefighting equipment in place. Most of them were found to be rusted. Many people were trapped inside the restaurant’s toilet when they tried to make one final attempt to survive.
“It was a roof-top restaurant. Most of the things that I have observed were very combustible materials. Majority of the visitors were not able to find out the escape route. They entered into the toilet and we found them lying unconscious in the toilet”, said Kailash Hirwale, Deputy Fire Officer, Mumbai.
By terming it an extremely unfortunate incident, the Maharashtra CM ordered an inquiry and suspended five Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) officials. It also instructed BMC to conduct audits and demolish structures if they find any illegalities.
Following the CM’s order, the Municipal Corporation got into a massive damage control mode and started demolishing illegal structures around the city. In just three days, it examined 824 eating out places and actions were taken on 722 of them.
This brings us to one fundamental question: How did Mumbai’s large textile mills turn into cramped and crowded clusters of restaurants and bars?
Under the British government in the late 1800s, land was carved out to build and run hundreds of textile mills - and by the 1920s, most of these mills were owned and run by Indians - but in the early 90s when most of these mills were shut down, these mill owners began approaching the state government to try and redevelop or sell these mills.
But the ownership of this mill is still not clear.
“Once the government acquires land, it becomes government’s land. In its wisdom, the government gave it to mill owners. The mill lands constantly changing hands - a person could simply buy out the shares of the textile company and get access to their land as well”, says Chandrashekhar Prabhu, former MHADA chairman and town planner.
During the time of the redevelopment, both the state government and the mill owners laid claim to the land and benefited from its redevelopment.
In 1991, the state government decided how this land would be split. It would keep two-third of all mill land to build affordable houses, open spaces and civic amenities and the remaining one-third would be handed over to the mill owners to redevelop and sell. This portion was given an additional floor space index - which meant that a higher amount of construction was permitted on this land as compared to the rest of the city. These norms were further relaxed and the state government would only get two-third of the total open spaces of the mill land, and not of the mill land itself.
By 1995, Phoenix Mills had already opened a commercial bowling arcade on its premises - other mills followed suit, encouraged by these relaxed construction norms. Soon, Mumbai's mills opened their doors to restaurants, companies and any other clients who were willing to pay rent.
Interestingly, no changes were made to the mills' infrastructure when they were redeveloped. - These buildings continue to have very narrow entrances and pathways. So while the restaurants inside these buildings may have fire safety measures in place, the mill compounds themselves are not even close to complying with these norms.“Most of the mills took partial and phase-wise redevelopment approach as against demolishing the old structures completely which can be one of the reasons why mills lands don’t comply with any safety norms”, said a real estate expert requesting anonymity.