The Gujarat government has filed an affidavit before the Gujarat High Court explaining the delays and challenges in implementation of fire safety norms in the state. According to the Indian Express, at present as of October 25, there were 163 hospitals and 348 schools in municipality jurisdictions that did not have a valid fire NOC.
On October 27, RH Vasava, joint secretary (Fire) of the Gujarat Urban Development and Urban Housing Department, submitted an affidavit before the Gujarat HC saying that the department was facing “genuine difficulties”. IE quotes select excerpts from the affidavit. It said, “During Diwali season the staff members would be preoccupied with inspections as well as answering the fire calls of the temporary structures made for selling firecrackers. Hence, the entire available staff members could not have been associated with the work of issuance of fire NOC.” It further sited difficulty in finding skilled labourers in smaller towns and difficulty in finding competent vendors for installation of good quality fire safety equipment. It also blames the public for understanding importance of fire safety saying, “In smaller towns, the owners/occupiers of the buildings do not spend money on the installation of Fire Safety Systems and n view thereof, it becomes very difficult to explain and at the same time ensure that minimum and necessary Fire Protection Systems are installed so as to provide Fire NOC to such buildings.”
As far as action taken so far goes, the affidavit says, “Against the said non-compliant buildings, the departments concerned have taken action in the form of disconnection of water supply of 48 hospitals and 84 schools; and disconnection of sewage in 14 hospitals and 6 schools.” Previously in September as we had reported in SabrangIndia, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) has served final closure notice upon as many as 214 schools for their failure to comply with fire safety norms. The notices were served by the Fire and Emergency Services Department of the AMC as part of a wider exercise to check fire safety compliance in various commercial establishments including but not limited to hospitals, nursing homes, restaurants and hotels. These establishments are required to get fire safety certificates and No Objection Certificates (NOC) from the Fire Department under provisions of the Gujarat Fire Prevention and Life Safety Measures Act 2013 that was amended in 2021.
All of this is significant in light of the Gujarat HC’s tough stand on the subject of fire safety in the state. In its order dated October 13, the court had said it “expects the authorities to act time-bound since the compliance of the fire safety norms is an issue which cannot book delay.” It had also asked the government to prioritise fire safety in hospitals and schools.
On October 28, 20201 though, as the coram had changed, it directed that the PIL not be placed before any coram comprising Justice Aniruddha Mayee. This is because prior to his judgeship, he was Advocate on Record, representing the State of Gujarat before the Supreme Court in a fire safety related matter.
Brief Background of the case
The subject of fire safety had become particularly significant in Ahmedabad in wake of the Shrey Hospital fire of August 6, 2020 that killed eight people recovering from Covid-19 in the ICU. Following this there was another such incidents reported from Rajkot where five Covid-19 patients were killed in November 2020. Yet another fire broke out in the ICU of the Bharuch Welfare Hospital in May 2021, killing 18 people.
Following this, the matter of fire safety became part of a wider litigation that eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. First, Advocate Suhel Tirmizi, whose wife Ayesha was one of the victims of the Shrey Hospital fire, had filed a PIL demanding accountability be fixed on various state and hospital authorities. The Gujarat High Court had passed two significant orders with respect to fire safety.
On December 15, 2020, while passing orders in a batch of Public Interest Litigations (PIL) in connection with the Shrey Hospital fire case, the Gujarat High Court had made a series of pertinent observations and passed orders that are bound to have a far-reaching impact.
The court ordered the State of Gujarat “to enact a consolidated Code/Act/Guidelines for fire safety requirement for clinical establishments/hospitals of all kinds setting out minimum standards of fire safety standards to be maintained by clinical establishments/ hospitals such as across the State of Gujarat.” It also directed the state government “to frame rules and guidelines for fire safety in ICU wards of the hospitals.”
It further ordered all respondent authorities “to comply with the provisions of Gujarat Fire Prevention and Life Safety Measures Act, 2013 strictly in clinical establishments such as Hospital/Nursing Homes/ School buildings of the city of Ahmedabad.”
Significantly, it also directed respondent authorities “to make mandatory installation of sprinkles and a fire extinguisher in every room/ward of every Hospital/Nursing Home irrespective of its height with a view to protect lives of innocent and infirm patients who are not capable of escaping any disaster in case of emergency situations.”
Then on February 26, 2021, the court ordered that all Municipal Corporations mentioned in the PIL be served notice.
It further ordered, “We direct all the Municipal Corporations to place on C/WPPIL/118/2020 ORDER record by way of an affidavit, a list of all the high rise buildings
-15 metres and 18 metres in height, special buildings, schools, hospitals, industries and factories within the jurisdictional limits of all the Municipal Corporations :
a. Which have a valid and subsisting No Objection Certificate with regard to the Fire Prevention and Protection Systems in the State of Gujarat ;
AND b. Which do not have a valid and subsisting No Objection Certificate with regard to the Fire Prevention and Protection Systems in the State of Gujarat”
The Court had ordered, “Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation is directed to place on record by way of an affidavit, the details of all the private hospitals which have not complied with the directions issued in Paragraph No. 23(14) of our earlier Order dated 15.12.2020” and that it was “directed to place on record the photocopies of the No Objection Certificates issued to all the hospitals located within the jurisdictional limits of Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation signed and certified by the Competent Authority within a period of 10 days from the date of the receipt of this order. One set of such photocopies shall also be furnished to the party-in-person.”
Specifically, when it came to reopening the Shrey Hospital, the court had on February 26, 2021 ordered, “The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation is directed not to remove or open the seals applied at the premises of the Shrey Hospital without the permission of this Court and shall not permit the Management to once again start with the functioning of the Hospital without the permission of this Court.”
The case in the Supreme Court
Following the Rajkot fire at the Uday Shivananda Hospital, the SC took suo moto cognisance, and in the case titled, In Re: Proper Treatment of COVID-19 Patients and Dignified Handling of Dead Bodies in the Hospitals, etc., asked the government via an order passed on December 9, 2020, to submit a report comprising data from all states on fire safety audits carried out in hospitals.
Meanwhile, the Gujarat government issued an executive notification that gave a virtual carte blanche to hospitals by allowing them to function without adhering to fire safety norms till June 2022, and that no action will be taken against them till then. Given the number of lives lost and the direct involvement of the highest court in the country, this notification showcased the Gujarat government’s impunity. But the Supreme Court took umbrage to this move by the Gujarat state government and stayed the notification.
Shrey Hospital victims’ families demand CBI inquiry
The families of three of the eight people killed in the fire that broke out in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of Shrey Hospital in Ahmedabad on the night of August 6, 2020, have moved court demanding that investigation be transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The patients were all recovering from Covid and died when the fire broke out around 3 A.M, allegedly due to a short circuit.
Concerns have been raised about the alleged absence of fire-fighting equipment, missing CCTV footage and there are even allegations that no doctors or medical care personnel were present in the ICU at the time of the incident. But the most curious element remains that matter of the missing mobile phones of the victims.
The families of three victims moved Gujarat High Court saying that Ahmedabad Police have failed to investigate crucial pieces of evidence and therefore the probe needs to be moved out of their hands and given to an independent investigative agency.