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Above: The Takshshila Arcade in Surat where 22 students lost their lives was regularised by paying impact fees/Photo: UNI

The death of 22 students in a coaching centre in Surat was a tragedy waiting to happen as the government turned a blind eye to illegal buildings and various violations in a bid to win polls and make money

By RK Misra in Ahmedabad

Gujarat spent Rs 3,000 crore building the Statue of Unity, the tallest statue in the world, but in Surat 22 students died on May 24 because the fire brigade did not have a ladder to reach the fourth floor of a building in flames.

Considered the commercial capital of Gujarat, Surat is the eighth largest city of India. There are almost 14,000 people per km here and the skyline is dotted with multi-storeyed buildings. Many lack safety standards, leading to the chilling sight of these teenagers jumping to their deaths when a fire engulfed their coaching centre. There was not even a netting to catch them as bystanders caught the sight on their mobiles, showing the criminal callousness of the government.

It goes to the credit of the Gujarat High Court that the Gujarat Fire Prevention and Life Safety Measures Act, 2013 came into being. Thereafter, the Gujarat Fire Services Authority was created and remains to this day an impotent, toothless tiger. One can count the staff there on one’s finger tips and none of them is permanent. The Authority has no equipment or manpower, no power to purchase equipment, nor is it in a position to issue any orders. “The Authority, for all practical purposes, remains defunct,” said advocate Amit Panchal who has been relentlessly crusading in court in this regard. The state government had promised the High Court in 2015 that it would fill up the vacancies in the fire services, but to no avail. The contempt petition to force the government to instil life into this Authority has been pending for four years and is slated to come up before the High Court on August 28.

As if this was not enough, the government has been regularising a rash of illegal buildings statewide on payment of a nominal impact fee. The first such regularisation was done by the Keshubhai Patel-led BJP government in 2000. It had given a binding to the High Court that it would be a one-time exception, though the date kept being extended.

Aimed at the urban vote-bank, it was now the turn of then Chief Minister Narendra Modi to get the assembly to pass the Gujarat Regularisation of Unauthorised Development Act, 2011, with provisions to regularise illegal constructions by recovering an impact fee. Though Panchal challenged the Act on behalf of his client, the extension of deadlines for the paid regularisation continued till well after Modi left for Delhi. The Act was passed with the 2012 assembly elections in mind.

In 2011, an estimated 25 lakh illegal constructions existed in Gujarat. Eight years on, the numbers would be much higher. Again, under Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, the government got the Gujarat Land Revenue (Amendment) Bill, 2017 passed. By education minister Bhupendrasinh Chudasama’s own admission, this was being done to regularise seven lakh properties built on agricultural land on payment of prevalent fees.

It is such illegality that has encouraged the politician-builder-bureaucrat nexus to play havoc with people’s lives. Incidentally, the Takshshila Arcade in Surat where 22 students, including 18 girls, lost their lives has an interesting history. The illegal structure was regularised by paying impact fees during the tenure of MK Das, the present principal secretary to the chief minister, when he was the municipal commissioner of Surat. Das has, however, gone on record to state that the municipal commissioner has no role to play in the regularisation as the powers in this regard are delegated to the deputy municipal commissioner, zonal officers and the executive engineer. The building in question was regularised in 2013.

In view of the largescale illegal commercial and residential structures in Surat, it is no surprise that it fuels a black money economy of gargantuan proportions. It comes as no surprise that CR Patil, the BJP MP from Navsari near Surat who was recently re-elected with a record margin, had in March 2017 shot off a letter to the Surat Municipal Corporation asking it not to respond to RTI queries and in fact, to blacklist those who kept seeking information repeatedly. Interestingly, the bulk of the RTIs in Surat pertain to information about illegal constructions.

It was a disaster in the making. In 2001, the Surat Urban Development Authority had approved a residential society on this land, but a wholly illegal commercial shopping centre was constructed there in 2007. From 2012-13, two floors were regularised under the 2011 laws, while the third floor was built illegally and the fourth floor came up on what was a terrace. Sporting flex banners with tyres for seating, students seeking admission to architectural and design institutes took coaching here. The place was a virtual tinder box waiting to explode.

The government never learns its lessons. Just six months ago on November 26, two children died in a fire in a coaching centre in Vesu, Surat. Chudasama was quick to state that coaching centres would soon be asked to seek prior permission before starting. Nothing happened. On January 30, a major fire broke out in a building housing a coaching class in Jivraj Park, Ahmedabad. A foam mattress shop on the ground floor caught fire and 27 students were trapped but later rescued by fire fighters. Until the fire on May 24, not a soul had stirred in the education department and the minister shifted blame to the municipal corporation. In fact, the sheer callousness of the state government can be seen from the fact that its 36,000 schools lack basic fire safety systems, putting the lives of 75 lakh students at risk.

With chilling pictures of students jumping to their deaths shaking the soul of India and politicians reacting quickly, the corruption-mired administration has been forced to get off its haunches and go into overdrive. All coaching classes, including hobby classes, pre-school and nursery classes all over the state have been ordered shut. As no permission was required to start these classes, there is no record of their numbers. A back of the envelope calculation would put their figure at 10,000 in Ahmedabad alone. All such classes have now been ordered to seek an approval from both the municipal corporation as well as the police commissioner in key cities and corresponding authorities in smaller towns. In Ahmedabad, where the municipal corporation had ignored a list of some 350 unsafe classes submitted by the district education officer in January, action has now begun.

The administration is also tearing down extensions and sealing buildings where checks have brought out irregularities. Rupani has ordered a fire safety audit of all commercial buildings and chief secretary JN Singh stated that the state government is mulling an integrated fire service for Gujarat. At present, eight municipal corporations all over the state have their own independent fire services, while municipalities and nagar palikas fall under the Fire Prevention and Life Safety Measures Act, 2013. Singh said that 713 teams comprising over 2,000 officers are on duty to inspect properties for fire safety in the whole of Gujarat.

Jaxay Shah, chairman of the Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India, said that if a new or under-construction building collapses, the builder should be booked, but it would be unfair to do so decades after he has handed over the building. “Let us not turn soft targets into punching bags,” he said.

Meanwhile, Gujarat is facing a shortage of fire extinguishers as builders/ owners are suddenly waking up to the existing laws. As a local newspaper said: “If only everyone had done their job, 22 young lives would not have been so brutally snuffed out.”

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