What started as a Mecca for civil services preparation, today stands as a commercial business hub.
As one walks down the roads of Old Rajinder Nagar in New Delhi, termed as the Mecca of IAS coaching, one expects the institutes, delivering training to potential civil servants to be in order. However, irony unsheathes itself when the advertisement board promoting classes on ethical morality conducts these courses in the most unethical way.
Moving ahead, a cluster of buildings flouting every building norm emerged on these roads. Long lines of students, protruding out from these buildings obstructed traffic mobility. Trained in civil engineering, I could observe that these poorly managed arrangements lacked fire-staircases, sufficient ventilation and the access roads to these buildings not wide enough to accommodate a fire-truck in case of a mishap.
Moreover, illegal encroachments flooded the footpaths, forcing the pedestrian to take to the main road. Second-hand books, stationery supplies and other exam preparatory materials like maps were spread on these paths. A quick birds-eye view revealed more illicit construction. Being a nucleus for preparation of various competitive exams conducted by the UPSC, this area witnesses an influx of students from across the width and breadth of the country.
To capitalise this housing demand, single room spaces were clustered one over the other, violating the vertical construction norms and the mandatory floor-area ratio. Like sardines in a can, students usually spent an average of 2-3 years in these poorly ventilated quarters, many helpless. “They charge exorbitantly high rent, yet facilities in such rooms are poor. However, we accept what we get, because the demand is quite high. The landlord asks us to vacate the room if we complain,” said one of the students I met on the streets.
On further surveying one of the mainstream coaching classroom, the entrance/exit threshold catches the first observation. They were too narrow when adjusted to the volume of children that were inside. In another classroom, of the same coaching house, one of the exit gates was blocked by extra chairs kept in front of it. The scene was reminiscent of the Uphaar Cinema tragedy – that could have been mitigated had the exit gates been kept clutter-free. This building held at least 3-4 classes parallel to each other, with an intake of 400 students in one class. Utter chaos erupted when all classes were dispersed at the same time, actively becoming a possible site for stampede under emergency.
One of the primary concerns in such construction is disaster attributed to fire. Less space, high demand and low regulation allow the owners to exploit various rules and regulations that demand the safety of people within the premises.
Smarika Sharma, an architect from NIT, Bhopal explains that the National Building Code and respective State codes like Bhoomi Vikas Adhiniyam lay down the necessary guidelines concerning fire, earthquake, storm and other possible mishaps. Providing a rough sketch on a piece of paper, she further explains, “The fire exit staircase must be protruding out from the main building structure. Additionally, it should be adequately broad and accessible to accommodate all people running down the building. Further, there have to be fireproof buffer zones and service floors in tall buildings which can host people when the rest of the building has caught fire. The clearance of the plans must be done after evaluating them over these safety parameters.”
However, on surveying, no such buffer zones or fire exit staircases were visible in these buildings. When such a robust mechanism exists to keep such illegal commercial structures under check, why these buildings are mushrooming remains unanswered. Attempts to reach out to the owners of these coaching institutes were futile and no other official was ready to comment.
A simple solution to contain the lackadaisical attitude of these coaching institutes and private guest houses is a periodic inspection, followed by a tough action on illegal construction. The by-laws must be followed, and regulatory bodies should be active. As Ms Meghana Gaddipati, a structural engineer says, “Regular fire inspections, and other safety audits, preferably monitored by third-party with relevant expertise in such safety inspections, especially for high rise buildings, can be a simple, but an effective check to avoid mishap and save human lives.”
Seemingly, it has become a social norm that authorities and public remain on their toes solely during accidents. Though tragedies affect everyone, emotions fade away. TV channels run their vociferous debates, but only a few days after, questions experience a paradigm shift, living shifts to business as usual and the subject – which once reflected importance – becomes insipid and lifeless.
One such incident that has lived a similar cycle of existence is the Surat fire tragedy that engulfed a coaching institute killing around 20 students. Raged by this incident, voices demanded building norms be strictly followed and illegal coaching centres to be shut at once. However, months after the incident, plenty of coaching institutes run as effectively as before, mocking most of the safety norms that exist merely on paper.