The fire at ESIC Hospital in Andheri on Monday was a disaster in waiting. This was the sentiment echoed by staffers, union leaders and doctors, who protested demanding safe working conditions on Tuesday.
Shipra Vishwakarma, an assistant orderly at the hospital for the past seven years, said, “When we heard of the fire, we were on first floor. We rushed to the paediatric ward on the third floor and carried or led the children out. The building is connected to the adjacent building but that exit was shut with metal sheets. We broke them open and went there, came down through the staircase. Who is responsible for the people who have died?”
Amruta Shelar, a nurse at the hospital, said, “We have been seeing this construction work for almost 10 years now. The debris is lying here and there. Why did the NBCC take so long? Their workers had placed material in the room that caught fire. Did they take permission? They had shut one exit too.”
According to the staff union, mishaps are not new in the hospital. In March, there was a fire in the hospital’s kitchen and four days before the incident, a Cobra emerged out of the scrap lying on the premises. A union member said, “After the snake emerged, we wrote to the hospital management to clear the scrap. The management then wrote to the NBCC contractor, but nothing happened. Small fires are a routine occurrence. But eight people have lost their lives.”
Union member Swarnav Banerjee said, “Why did the hospital not have CCTV cameras, a disaster management protocol? The condition of the staff quarters has been pathetic for years now. Why didn’t the administration penalise the contractor for the repeated delays?”
The hospital building, constructed in the 1970s, neither has a fire brigade NOC nor an occupation certificate from the MIDC, which was designated as special planning authority of the area decades later. Since the building is not covered under the Fire Act, 2005, the MIDC fire brigade cannot prosecute it. “The old building does not fall under the purview of the Fire Act and therefore ours. “As per Section 3 of the Act, the owners and occupiers are responsible for their fire safety,” said M.V. Ogale, deputy chief fire officer, MIDC Fire Brigade.
‘No fire-fighting gear’
Hospital medical superintendent B.B. Gupta admitted it did not have fire-fighting equipment except fire extinguishers. “We were in the process of installing them. These things are looked into by the ESIC head office.”
The old building’s revised plans to put a glass façade had received a provisional commencement certificate of the MIDC. As for the new building, the hospital had planned new wards, operation theatres, blood bank, and staff quarters. The contractors had applied to the MIDC fire brigade for a NOC around 15 days ago but the brigade instead pointed out several errors to them.
“They were in process of rectifying those. The fire occurred in the old building,” Mr. Ogale said. The MIDC fire brigade has only one fire station in SEEPZ for the entire industrial area. When asked about challenges during Monday’s firefighting, he said the biggest challenge was that of bedridden patients. “We brought down most of the patients on our shoulders. Both fire brigades worked in tandem.”
The staffers now face uncertainty as the hospital might not start functioning any time soon. Meenal Kasare, a radiology technician, said, “The hospital management has not replaced the staffers who retired after 2012, and instead hired contractual ones. Most nursing orderlies and sweepers are on contract. Only a month ago, there had been a fire and our union members had warned them.”
The staffers now want to be accommodated in a ESIC hospital, but the other ESIC hospitals in the city are State-run and the one in Marol was run by the Central government. The staff do not want to move out of Mumbai.
‘Past incidents of fire not reported’
Union Minister of State for Labour and Employment Santosh Kumar Gangwar, who visited the ESIC Hospital on Tuesday, said that the State government would conduct an inquiry and submit a report to the Central government.
ESIC additional commissioner S.K. Sinha said, “The NBCC was looking after the construction. It’s status and deficiencies need to be checked with them.” Dr. Gupta said they have accommodated all patients in other hospitals and ESIC doctors are there for assistance. When asked whether the contractor had taken his permission to store material on the ground floor, he answered in the negative. He said it was not a functional room but a vacant one where material was stored.
NBCC could not be reached for comment. Mr. Gangwar said, “This is a very unfortunate incident. It is true that NBCC had been working here for some time now. The secretary had reviewed the situation here around 10 days ago. But these past incidents of fire were never reported to us.”