The fires caused by leaking gas cylinders and pipelines, short-circuits in power lines, bursting of boilers, terrorist acts, and inadequacy of fire-fighting gadgetry in business premises, are reported virtually every day, but concerned authorities ignore the above-referred negligence by operators in commercial and industrial areas, worse still, they didn’t expand and upgrade the state’s own fire-fighting services.
At the end of December 2016, the report released by Karachi Metropolitan Corporation’s (KMC) Fire Brigade Department about frequency of fires and state of the department’s capacity to confront these tragedies went unnoticed reflecting yet again the concern for expanding and upgrading emergency services despite the rise in Karachi’s size and population.
According to this document, reports filed by 21 fire stations of Karachi – Pakistan’s biggest metropolis – show that, until November end 2016, there were 3,766 fire incidents, implying thereby that on an average, there were 10 incidents of big and small fires per day, including in the industrial estates that make a huge contribution to the country’s GDP.
Blaming fires on enterprise owners is a weak excuse because they can’t violate regulations on internal safety set-ups and emergency drills if their compliance is regularly verified by the relevant authorities. True, today’s businessmen find it a dumb idea to invest in adequate fire-fighting equipment because it doesn’t yield any profit, but should this be permitted?
The authorities that license small and medium-sized businesses to operate, and building plans of factories, either lack requisite ability to foresee the risk that a defective building design and fire-fighting set-up foretells, or approve it “you know why”, that lead to fires, asset destruction, and deaths explains this failure – a scenario worsened by inadequacy of KMC’s own emergency services.
According to the Fire Brigade’s Chief Fire Officer, 47 fire tenders and 3 snorkels are inoperative because they need repairs and only 18 fire tenders are in working condition. Impliedly, nearly three-fourths of the fire-fighting vehicles are inoperative. As for capacity of functional snorkels, we witnessed the limitations to their reach while extinguishing fires in towering buildings.
Despite this worrisome setting, buying fire-fighting gadgetry remains a venue for self-enrichment as exposed by a petition in Sindh High Court alleging huge corruption by the Sindh government that planned to buy a snorkel for Rs 570 million although, according to the petition, the Punjab government has contracted to buy the same for Rs 220 million.
Three-fourth of Karachi’s fire-fighting vehicles are inoperative because the annual contract with a firm for repairing them has expired but since a resolution to delegate powers to Karachi’s Mayor and Deputy Mayor for renewing it couldn’t be tabled in City Council meeting, the issue is pending. Reason: politicking is crippling the local government.
According to the Fire Brigade’s Chief Fire Officer, the amount due to the firm providing repair services stands at Rs 8 million. Is this the sort of amount delaying whose payment (standard formula for reducing fiscal deficit) can cut the provincial government’s fiscal deficit? Besides, with its proclaimed fiscal surplus, should the Sindh government be doing so?
This attitude reflects Sindh government’s concern for minimising tragedies. Not surprisingly, Pakistan still relies on the British era Factories Act-1937 although ground realities changed radically since 1937, proving that Pakistan’s lawmakers neither care about these rapidly changing realities nor have the vision to visualise the future impact of these changes.
While inquiries ordered by courts and the government about fire tragedies take time, (eg the Baldia Town factory fire inquiry) to establish the role of emergency services, certain facts are clear even now about the failure of emergency services due to provincial and local governments’ neglect of badly needed investment in these crucial services.
Crippled fire brigade services and increasing fire tragedies also reflect a slide in regulatory oversight-outcome of bureaucracy’s drift into a bottomless pit of neglect of its moral and official obligations and corruption, and due to legislators’ weak accountability skills that have more to do with sheer irresponsibility and incompetence than with their political links.
Besides regulatory violations in industrial estates, retail markets with scores of shops selling inflammable items too don’t have even hand-held fire extinguishers. This is the combined failure of regulatory authorities as well as the trade bodies that show their muscle only on fiscal issues. But neither the government nor the FPCCI admonishes or punishes the trade bodies on this mega failure.
During January-November 2016, SITE Fire Station reported 256 fire incidents while Korangi Fire Station reported 293. In factories using inflammable items as raw material, their fire-fighting gadgetry/arrangements and emergency fire exits shouldn’t just be adequate, but in working order all the time and periodic fire-fighting drills must be conducted to train employees how to react to a fire emergency.
This must be ensured by a regulatory agency, be it Civil Defence, Fire Brigade or the Labour Department, if industrial units are to become safer. Yet, ensuring the observance of these disciplines is ignored despite rising incidents of destructive fires. Due to relevant monitoring authorities’ neglect of their duties, factory owners’ recklessness continues unchecked – an undeniable failure of the state.
Many tragedies in industrial estates proved that factory premises didn’t conform to approved designs. Who oversees the construction of factories to ensure that their structures comply with approved designs? Do ‘supervisors’ of the regulatory authorities fulfil their obligations? Don’t ill-designed factories keep operating for years while owners weren’t penalised for violating the construction plan?
While government carries bulk of the responsibility for the fire disasters, banks financing commercial and industrial entities too share that blame because, prior to lending to them, banks must verify that factory owners have complied with:
— regulatory requirements in terms of factory design,
— regulations on installing requisite fire-fighting equipment,
— installed fire-fighting equipment and alarms are adequate for the factory size, and spread all over the factory,
— fire-fighting equipment is functional all the time,
— emergency fire exits are adequate and open quickly, and
— holding regular fire-fighting drills is verifiable.
Because banks now out-source such verification functions, frontline bankers no longer have the expertise for assessing compliance along these lines. SBP must ensure that financial institutions lending to industrial units have the ability to visualise unit-specific fire probabilities, require set-up of requisite fire-fighting systems, and regularly verify their matching the activity level, and are always functional.
State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) should revisit its policy on permitting out-sourcing of such functions because it has led to creation of huge gaps in the skills of front-line bankers. Weak risk monitoring, that these gaps have created, partly account for the non-performing loans-a trend that isn’t conducive for Pakistan’s banking. Besides, can the badly needed FDI inflows increase in this risky environment? -Business Recorder