Fire alarms ring for heritage buildings
MUMBAI: Just the way a peer’s passing reminds one of one’s own mortality, the inferno that engulfed Stephen Court in Kolkata, claiming 24 lives, has reminded Mumbai of the vulnerability of its own heritage structures.
While potential disasters lay strewn about South Mumbai, which has its A-list of historic old buildings, fire brigade and ambulance services can hardly access the city’s narrow gaothans in an emergency.
“Structures built 100 to 150 years ago were not constructed using RCC, that is cement and concrete. That technology came later,” says chief fire officer Uday Tatkare. “Buildings in those days used a lot of wood, which is a highly combustible material, unlike RCC, which is fire resistant.” Timber, however, does take longer to burn, while steel frames can twist and simply cause a building to collapse.
In several of Mumbai’s heritage buildings, a maze of electrical wiring lies exposed. Experts say a small spark can put paid to any restoration job. Of course, there are no fire exits or extinguishers either.
Mumbai has witnessed its share of heartburn. The blazing fires seen during the 26/11 terrorist attack on the
Taj Mahal Palace are perhaps the most vicious example of deliberate arson inside a heritage monument.
“The GPO building was nearly burnt down in 1995. The BMC headquarters across the road caught fire in 2000 and the corporation hall was gutted,” recalls conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah. “All old buildings must conduct a yearly fire audit.”
Architect Vikas Dilawari says, “Owners and tenants need to be sensitised to basic issues that old buildings face. They continue to sub-divide the property and add mezzanine floors and air-conditioners, which put an unbearable load on the structure. Several tenants wilfully flout fire safety rules while, thanks to the Rent Control Act, landlords are reluctant to incur costs for repairs.”
The brightest legal minds of the country operate from Esplanade Mansion, formerly known as Watson’s Hotel, the oldest cast-iron structure in the country. Now a crumbling edifice held up by wooden props, this building at Kala Ghoda is a disaster waiting to happen thanks to the vast wooden staircase, mindless conversion of room space as well as yards of entangled wiring.
Advocate Majeed Memon, whose office is on the third floor, is naturally concerned. “It is true that we do not have a fire exit or even a fire extinguisher. I hope the landlord pays urgent attention to this dilapidated building,” he says.
Residents of Khotachiwadi and the gaothans of Bandra and Andheri have long complained that their roads are too narrow to allow access to the fire brigade. Dr Henal Shah, who lives in Khotachiwadi, has raised the issue of fire safety at the local level. “In fact, I have even ascertained the procedure by which individual owners can fortify their homes. It is a good thing most cottages are a single storey tall. But they are completely made of wood, including the beams and pillars,” she points out.
Structural engineer and heritage committee member S G Joglekar also points out that historic buildings are often repositories of important relics and historical records. Lambah agrees, adding, “The Asiatic Library houses an enviable collection of rare books and relics and the mess of criss-cross wiring is a real danger. The Maharashtra State Archives, another storehouse of knowledge, located inside Elphinstone College faces similar danger.”