Deadly inferno

By Editorial Board
November 28, 2023

In most cities across the world the revelation that 90 per cent of a city’s buildings lack fire safety arrangements would prompt shock and outrage from its residents. But this is Karachi, where the residents have long abandoned any hope that the authorities governing the city have the will or the capability to do their jobs. They take it for granted that they are on their own in the big concrete jungle.

This latest revelation of the utter lack of anything resembling governance in the country’s business capital came on November 22 at the annual symposium of the Fire Protection Association of Pakistan. Just three days later, a fire would engulf a multi-storey mall located on Karachi’s Rashid Minhas Road, killing 11 people.

Firefighters douse the fire at a shopping mall in Karachi on November 25, 2023. — AFP

A case has been registered against K-Electric, the fire department and other departments in connection with the blaze, with the FIR also mentioning that the building lacked fire extinguishers and emergency exits. It also adds that the map of the building was illegally approved and that the mall received an NOC despite the use of defective materials, adding that the company, government department and other institutions committed criminal negligence.

Sadly, a cursory look at the forest of buildings that comprises Karachi and their tangled jumble of open wires, fading paint and cracked concrete tells a tale of chronic disregard for the lives of the people by those in charge of monitoring buildings and enforcing construction and safety regulations. The mall that caught fire on Rashid Minhas Road could be any of the buildings in Karachi – and, according to the information shared at the aforementioned symposium, it indeed is.

In the aftermath of this latest deadly inferno, there has been the usual call for audits, inquiries, and investigations that end up amounting to little or nothing. There is little to indicate that this time will be any different in terms of a marked improvement in the safety arrangements of our buildings. This is the second major fire incident in Karachi this year, with a blaze at a garment factory leading to the deaths of four firefighters in April. Back in 2021, a fire at a chemical factory left at least 10 dead. Nor is this an issue unique to Karachi alone, with experts estimating that 12000-15000 people die in hundreds of fire incidents across the country every year. The frightening regularity with which these incidents occur and the almost banal nature of the promises issued in their aftermath is enough to turn anyone into a cynic. How does one even go about enforcing regulations that 90 per cent of buildings in the city are not complying with? Unfortunately, for many Pakistanis in Karachi and elsewhere, it will likely be too late before our rulers finally solve this riddle.