If blank space beneath the caption retained its relevance as journalism’s most extreme expression of dismay and disgust, it might have been an appropriate reaction to the horrific deaths of 14 persons in a night club in the former Kamala Mills complex in the Parel-Mahalakshmi area of Mumbai’s erstwhile “mill district”. For, truth be told, there is nothing “new” to comment about ~ every major Indian city has suffered rampaging fires that have claimed a huge number of precious lives. It would be sinful to ascribe the mishaps to “accidents”, the underlying linkages are of criminal neglect and a callousness that has rendered those in authority immune to the tragic and shocking stories told by such fiery deaths. The details of each incident would obviously be different, but there can be no asphyxiating smokescreen drawn over the outrages at the “One Above” nightclub, Uphaar cinema in the Capital etc: what had begun as evenings of entertainment turned out to be dances with death ~ the devastation unleashed on the victims’ families will haunt them to their own graves. The greatest tragedy of all being that there is little reason to hope there will no repetition.

After each incident the various official agencies go into overdrive, demolitions are carried out, a few licences cancelled but no sooner has public anger dissipated the same crimes are committed afresh. Zoning regulations and safety rules are wantonly flouted, dangerous modifications are carried out to premises not originally designed to cater to even moderate-sized gatherings, stairways are encroached upon, escape routes blocked to provide more space for commercial exploitation, fire-extinguishers etc are installed at initial stages but seldom checked if serviceable ~ the list of illegalities is endless. The patrons of many restaurants and night clubs are not entirely guilt-free either ~ a little alcohol goes a long way in making a mockery of a sense of responsible behaviour. From the official angle the buck stops nowhere. Corruption flows upward from the municipal, police and fire departments to corporators, MLAs, even ministers. A few heads may roll after each incident, but the culprits (who have lined their pockets) are rehabilitated and the vicious cycle persists ~ fertilising the ground for another tragedy. Would there be some value in creating a cadre of officials trained in the management of urban civic affairs, the general run of bureaucrats have failed pathetically in “running” even medium-sized towns let alone the burgeoning urban jungles? An infusion of some professionalism into municipal management is overdue, and the managers must be empowered to resist political pressure. Above all what is needed is a sincere sense of shame at Indian lives proving so terribly worthless. Has a single minister been sacked for presiding over monumental ineptitude? Has a fire like the one at Kamala Mills incinerated electoral aspirations?