A day after 17 people were killed in a massive fire that swept through Hotel Arpit Palace in central Delhi, the authorities at various levels seemed to be indulging in a face-saving exercise.
The five-floor hotel, located at Delhi’s busy commercial centre Karol Bagh, comes under the BJP-ruled North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC).
The AAP, which rules Delhi, has blamed the civic body for allegedly allowing the hotel to build an extra floor and structures above four floors to operate a rooftop restaurant-cum-bar.
The hotel is alleged to have violated various building rules and fire safety norms apparently in collusion with officials of various departments concerned.
The Delhi government has ordered a magisterial inquiry into the horrific incident, one of the worst fire disasters in the national capital.
On the defensive, the North Corporation has also constituted a committee to inquire into the fire incident, promising strong action against those found guilty.
The authorities have claimed to have frequently launched raids to enforce building codes, fire safety measures, and evacuation procedures in the national capital, but these steps have failed to check rampant violations of building norms in the city.
North Corporation mayor Adesh Gupta said, “The (inquiry committee) report would be submitted to us in three days. As per my visual inspection, the exit of the hotel was closed. The owners have an NOC (no objection certificate) from the Fire Department, on the basis of which the Health Department issued a licence to them to run the hotel and restaurant.
“A probe has been ordered and its report is expected in three days. The probe will seek to find if there were any lapses from the civic officials’ end, or Delhi Fire department’s end and also talk about ensuring that such incidents do not recur,” said Gupta, adding that strict action will be taken against civic employees if they are found guilty of lapses.
Gupta had also visited the site on Tuesday to take stock of the situation.
According to the sources in the North Corporation, the hotel, which was issued the licence in 2017 for three years, was protected under the Special Provision Act, which was passed by Parliament in 2017 to protect unauthorised constructions from demolition in Delhi.
Officials say that as per the Special Provision Act, illegal structures in Delhi are protected from demolition or sealing till December 31, 2020.
The Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP government has asked if Delhi will see the north civic body commissioner or chief of Fire Department being suspended for “loss of human lives”. Delhi Fire Services, however, falls under the Delhi government.
The Karol Bagh hotel fire disaster had occurred in the wee hours of Tuesday, when most of the hotel’s guests and its staff were asleep, due to a suspected electric short circuit in the building. Many people were injured in the incident.
This is not the first major incident of fire in overcrowded areas in Delhi. Hauz Khas Village and Sadar Bazar areas have witnessed similar incidents earlier.
The Fire Department has always objected to vendors crowding narrow lanes, which hinders fire personnel in performing their duty in the event of a fire. Moreover, 40 per cent of the posts of firemen are lying vacant in the Delhi Fire Service. What is more worrying is that there are 57,00,000 buildings listed in Delhi, but as per the Fire Department, only 20,000 had their NOC till two years ago.
Meanwhile, a Delhi court reportedly remanded two managers of Hotel Arpit Palace to police custody for two days.
The court noted that the fire disaster took place in the hotel due to the non-compliance of various norms of the Delhi Fire Service.
Metropolitan Magistrate, Shilpi Jain, allowed Delhi Police to interrogate the hotel’s general manager, Rajender Kumar, and manager, Vikas Kuma Takkal, in custody till Friday. The court, however, directed police not to torture the accused. The police had arrested them on Wednesday.
The police told the court that the hotel ran an illegal kitchen on the rooftop and in the basement without permission. They said the accused were needed to be in custody to recover the guest register and to inquire about the sequence of the incident.
The court has sought a report from the police on the steps taken by them to prevent similar incidents in hotels.
Delhi Police, on Wednesday, registered an FIR against the management of the hotel under Section 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) and Section 308 (attempt to commit culpable homicide) of the Indian Penal Code. The hotel owner, Shardendu Goel, is absconding since the incident.
Meanwhile, a team of senior officials of the North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) visited Hotel Arpit Palace in Karol Bagh on Wednesday after North Corporation mayor Adesh Gupta ordered a probe, officials said.
“The team is headed by the deputy commissioner of the neighbouring Keshawpuram Zone to ensure impartial probe,” a senior NDMC official said.
Hotel Arpit Palace falls under the jurisdiction of Karol Bagh Zone of the NDMC. The report of the probe is expected to be submitted by Saturday, said the officials.
A senior NDMC official suggested that a short-circuit could have caused the fire, adding that as per the records, the building had faced “intermittent partial demolition” or other civic action under the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act from mid-June 1993 to January 1994, for unauthorised constructions.
“There are apparent civic norms violations, including running a makeshift restaurant on the rooftop. The probe will take into account all of that and previous violations if any,” the official added.