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Indian police arrest two over deadly restaurant fire

Action demanded against civic chief for ignoring complaints over violations

Mumbai: Indian police said on Monday they had arrested two managers of a popular Mumbai restaurant where a huge fire killed 14 people last week.

Kevin Bawa and Lisbon Lopez — both in their 30s — were arrested on Sunday night, two days after the deadly blaze tore through the 1Above restaurant, a police spokesman told AFP.

“We have arrested them for culpable homicide not amounting to murder under various sections of the Indian penal code,” said Deepak Deoraj.

Many of the victims in Friday’s fire were young women attending a birthday party on the rooftop when the fire broke out.

Doctors said they died of asphyxiation as they tried to flee the burning building.

A non-government organisation (NGO) has demanded action against municipal commissioner Ajoy Mehta and Chief fire officer Prabhat Rahangdale for ignoring its complaints against shopping malls, hotels and restaurants for not adhering to safety measures.

The deaths have brought to the fore the nexus between owners of such outlets, politicians and civic officials in turning a blind eye to illegal and fire-hazardous structures. The NGO has written to Mumbai police commissioner and Chief Secretary of Maharashtra that appropriate sections be applied under provisions of the Indian Penal Code against them.

Activists Nicholas Almeida and Godfrey Pimenta, of Watchdog Foundation, said they had written to Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) chief Mehta in September 2015 on how many hotels and restaurants particularly in K/East municipal ward, Andheri East, were using basements for illegal purposes to run facilities such as restaurants, spas, salons, gymnasium, business centres, shops, discotheques, wedding halls and conference rooms. They had pointed out that “this usage of basement is clearly prohibited under Regulation 38(9) of the Development Control Regulations.” It stipulates basements could only be put to use for storage of household or non-hazardous, goods, used as store rooms, bank lockers, safe deposit vaults parking space, electric substation or for utilities of a building.

While pointing out that any mishap could occur by such usage, they had demanded that the Fire Brigade conduct surprise checks on these outlets just as the way BMC had planned to do random checks.

“But our complaints were either ignored or not acted upon by him, which amounts to total abdication of his duties,” said Almeida. Subsequently, the BMC’s circular about allowing roof top restaurants and pubs was also raised with the government, he says, and yet there was no action.

Authorities continued to ignore such violations when Right to Information (RTI) activist Ilyas Khan and Mangesh Kasalkar, political workers, warned the BMC about the unauthorised extensions and violation by 1Above rooftop pub in Kamala Mills. Again, such complaints against this pub as well as other several eating joints and pubs in Kamala Mills and the nearby Raghuvanshi Mills were ignored.

The Watchdog Foundation has also pointed how such serious violations had led to a blaze in a snack-making shop killing 12 workers in suburban Saki Naka last month. Earlier, in October 2015, a massive fire broke out due to a cylinder blast in City Kinara Hotel, Kurla, killing eight, including some students. Almeida also points out “since these victims were from a poorer background, no politician visited the site or tweeted on the tragedy”.

Witnesses said the victims had difficulty finding the narrow exit door, leading to a stampede in the rooftop precincts.

Accidental fires are common across India because of poor safety standards and lax enforcement of regulations.

The blaze at the Kamala Mills compound, which also houses hotels and media organisations, was the latest disaster to raise concerns over fire safety in India.

It came just over a week after a fire swept through a sweet shop in Mumbai, sparking a building collapse which killed 12 sleeping workers.

Such disasters are particularly common in Mumbai, where millions live in cramped and dilapidated properties because of high rents.

Activists say builders and landlords often cut corners on safety to save costs and have accused Mumbai’s civic authorities of negligence and apathy.

Five city officials have been suspended for negligence in connection with Friday’s fire.

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