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Business as usual

Local traders say there is no need to blame anyone for the hotel fire that killed 17, it was an “accident”

A day after the ghastly fire at Karol Bagh’s Hotel Arpit Palace that killed 17 people, life goes on uninterrupted. There are crowds on the streets, Tank Road and Gurudwara Road markets are doing brisk business, people are queuing up outside the eateries and masala momo is a bit hit.

Half of the pedestrians Patriot spoke to, are not even aware that a fire engulfed a building in the locality, claiming so many lives. Others have only a vague idea of what happened.

Some make intelligent guesses. “Was it the because of the gas cylinder blast in the kitchen,” asks Rashmi Chawla, a middle-aged bank clerk, shopping with friends for her son’s wedding. “I didn’t read the papers today,” she says apologetically.

The city of Delhi has a great capacity to absorb public tragedies of humongous proportions in its stride. That’s heartening and sad as well. The general apathy is visible as one walks down Tank Road, where more than 200 hotels, bars and spas have mushroomed in the past few years. And because it’s not mandatory to submit a completion certificate, which also includes fire clearance, many of these bars get liquor licences.

The local court has already ordered a probe. “In light of the damage caused in the incident, the court deems it fit to call a report from the joint commissioner of the area concerned,” informed Metropolitan Magistrate Shilpi Jain.

Government bodies continue to be apathetic, even in the face of a tragedy of this nature. Multiple agencies that run Delhi wake up, pass the buck amongst each other and indulge in a blame game. The North Delhi Municipal Corporation Mayor Avdesh Gupta, of the BJP, blames AAP’s Delhi Government for unchecked growth of illegal construction.

It is estimated that 698 guest houses in Delhi, majority of them in Paharganj and Karol Bagh, often flaunt rules laid in the Master Plan of Delhi and don’t adhere to safety measures.

The fire department did not furnish a formal response, but one official who was part of the rescue operation that involved a team of two dozen fire tenders, explained that most of the smaller hotels are located in congested areas where rescue operations face hurdles. As per data compiled by the Delhi Fire Services, about 250 hotels in the Capital continue to operate without adequate fire safety measures in place.

These are serious concerns, but people at large seem to not be bothered. Karol Bagh is one of the biggest and most crowded markets in Delhi, full of garment showrooms, brightly lit with glass fronts. Neon lights announce the presence of spa and bars. Along the streets, electricity poles support a jumble of tangled overhead wires and cables, some hanging precariously close to the moving crowd as they go about their business.

When asked, “Do these overhanging cables bother you? They may catch fire, or lead to fire,” they look up, make faces. Some say, “Didn’t notice” and walk on, while others react with a counter question: “Is it dangerous?” or “Don’t worry, these wires and cables have been here for decades, nothing happened, it’s quite safe.”

Fruit vendor Kalim, who has a stall close to the Metro station, suggests, “All the overhanging electricity wires should be made underground.”

Many of the shopkeepers feel that the media is fanning a controversy about nothing. “This has been the case for years. Now that a tragedy has happened, because of short-circuit in shaft of lift, you guys (he meant journalists) are here to make a story,” says a hotel manager, standing outside Relax Point SPA on Tank Road, who refused to identify himself. “I will only reply to the authorities. I have done nothing illegal,” he asserts.

Outside the Hotel Arpit Palace building, three policemen sit on a bench in front of the entrance. Life on this crossing goes on as usual, but for some police barricades in place. The top floor is covered with plastic sheets supported by a maze of iron bars. Some broken glass from the windows on the facade of the building tell the tale of how desperate people plunged to save lives from inferno, some of them dying due to the fall.

One house away from the hotel is another hotel, where old electrical appliances are being disposed of. The manager on duty claims that the owner of the Hotel Arpit Palace is absconding, while the general manager has been arrested. Asked “Do you have fire clearance?” he refused to reply. “I have nothing to say,” he parrots. The hotel is open, people are checking in.

Many other bars, spas and restaurants in the vicinity are doing good business. They take orders but refuse to talk about the fire incident, while asserting that they have in place necessary fire safety measures to allay fears of the guests. Vice-president of the Delhi Hotel Association Balam Mani  categorically says that it was “an accident” and can happen anywhere, to anyone, even in a household.

Rajesh Kumar, 24, lives in the same locality and attends coaching classes to prepare for the civil services examination. He was studying in the morning, when he heard the fire brigade arrive. There was noise and commotion, but he decided to go to bed. “I didn’t imagine that so many people will die. But it doesn’t cause me any anxiety, it’s just an event that has happened, a few headlines, that’s about it.”

The shopkeepers are not happy that this one incident should be used by the authorities to interfere in their businesses. “We follow the norms laid by the government. I know it’s important for our own safety. The hotel owner didn’t want this to happen. It’s a tragedy that so many people died, no one denies that, but such things happen, incidents happen. He too lost so much, his livelihood.” says Sumit Chugh,who runs a saree shop on Gurudwara Road.

“Somebody had to be blamed, the owners have been made the main culprit in the media. That’s not fair,” says Hrithik Rastogi, a property dealer. “We have stock worth crores, we take good care,” says a stout man who identifies himself as Bunty and claims to own many basements and godowns in the area. He was in the hotel an evening before the fire, “I was  frequently there. I’d make my clients stay there,” he says.