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On any weekend, going to that favourite Italian joint in one of the most sought-after addresses in New Delhi, Khan Market, involves the following: finding parking space for at least 20 minutes and then fitting the car in the tightest of the spots, taking a walk through a not-so-well lit back alley teeming with other patrons and finally climbing a steep staircase barely a feet and half in width. Now imagine if you have to make a hasty retreat in case of a fire and do the same thing in reverse, scary right. Cut to Lajpat Nagar market, a commercial establishment in a middle-class locality in South Delhi, famous for wholesale fabric shops and almost every conceivable knick-knack and household item available under the sun. The place which covers over a kilometre is strewn with cars parked at illegal parking spots, has just four major exits, where the police has placed barricades for ‘security’ concerns, boxing up the whole place. Inside a series of alleys have hundreds of shops which again have just one small exit. At any given day the area can see a footfall of over 100,000 visitors, making it one of the most crowded places in the city. New Delhi which witnessed rapid and haphazard growth in terms of people coming to the city, as well as construction in the last 30 years, expanded keeping all the safety measures aside. Illegal construction, lack of adherence to any building codes or fire safety norms while setting up commercial establishments, has turned the National Capital into a major safety hazard. With more than 50 major commercial complexes and markets, 6000 eating joints and barely 20 percent with valid fire clearances, New Delhi is sitting on a virtual tinderbox. Sadly, however, instead of making things right, everyone starting from authorities, restaurant owners to businessmen is claiming to do the right thing. Saved by technicalities According to Delhi Fire Service officials, a restaurant which has a seating capacity of less than 50 patrons, can operate without a fire no objection certificate (NOC). This also means that, no one from the fire department comes and checks if they are taking adequate fire safety measures or do not have more than 50 covers. Almost 75 percent of the establishments claim to operate with less than 50 covers. “It is part of the guidelines, we did not make it. But yes there are times we go on drives to educate restaurant owners, tell them to keep their fire safety equipment up to date, how much it helps I do not know,” said a senior fire official. In case of Khan Market where as many as 16 of the 75 odd restaurants were sealed, New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) alleged that these restaurants were running out of establishments which till now have not been converted from residential to commercial. “It means that they have not taken any of the permissions required and have next to no fire safety norms in place,” said a senior NDMC official.
On being asked why were the establishment not sealed earlier, the official said that drives take time as requisite permissions need to be taken. “We have to ask for police back up, get approvals and do everything by the book otherwise, the owners can challenge the sealing,” he added.Blame game continues According to restaurant owners, they are being prosecuted for the mistakes committed by civic authorities. “Any restaurant owner who is investing so much in a restaurant and is something that is going to provide him a livelihood is not going to open an illegal place. Restaurants for example in Khan Market have been operating for the last 25 years. The problem is the archaic laws are neither being reviewed or being implemented correctly. Every restaurant has fire equipment, smoke detectors, everything. Is it not the government’s job to provide infrastructure for growth. We have given plans to the Delhi government for restaurant hub, however, the problem is that the government is not doing anything,” said Riyaaz Amlani, chief executive of Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality and former president of National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI). Authorities on their part claim that only those establishments that have taken proper permissions are only given clearances. “We only given NOC to those restaurants which are following all the fire safety norms,” said GC Mishra, Director, Delhi Fire Services. Upmarket to downright pedestrian, situation same everywhere From the swankiest pubs, restaurants, commercial establishments to street vendors, fire safety is the last thing on the minds of people. According to a senior South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) official, most of the restaurants and boutiques in Hauz Khas Village, Shahpur Jat, do not have any fire exits. “In Hauz Khas there is not enough space to put a metal fire exit staircase in the back alley. The staircases are narrow and many started without taking any permission. We sealed more than 30 such restaurants last year. We will again conduct sealing drives over the next few days. The problem is these restaurants again come up with a different name after some time,” said the SDMC official. In the last five years, Municipal Corporation of Delhi in total has sealed more than 12,000 such properties all over Delhi.