Playing with fire

January 12, 2020

Recent incidents of fire in dingy residential and marketplaces inside the Walled City call for immediate attention of the concerned authorities

“The houses and shops are situated so close to one another that if fire starts at one point it can engulf the entire place in no time.” — Photos by Rahat Dar

Early this month, at least four people were reported as killed and several injured in a fire that erupted at a leather warehouse in Mochi Gate area. Those killed were poor labourers who had occupied the top floor of a building that housed a leather godown. The fire started at night when they were asleep. It spread so fast that no one had the time to escape.

The reason for the fire was said to be short-circuiting.

What made the rescue operation difficult was the lack of easy access to the congested place where the deadly incident happened. It transpired that there was volatile/highly combustible material lying inside the building. Besides, excessive heat and thick smoke found no outlet, so the fire got out of control.

In another incident, in a house in Said Mitha Bazaar, inside the Walled City, the dowry of two sisters was burnt, as a gas heater fell on some inflammable material and caught fire. The girls were badly injured.

It is a worrisome fact that despite having similar causes and challenges to overcome them, there is no end to incidents of fire. It appears that precautionary (fire-safety) measures are either not taken or they aren’t up to the mark.

No doubt, every building is vulnerable to fire, especially those in congested areas and at places where some sort of combustible material is stacked. The Walled City is a case in point, being home to huge wholesale markets besides residential places lined on either side of its narrow lanes.

Kamran Lashari, Director General (DG), Walled City Lahore Authority (WCLA), says it’s a huge challenge. “The people need to be convinced about the importance of precautionary measures such as getting faulty electricity wiring fixed without delay,” he tells TNS.

Lashari claims that the WCLA has covered electricity wires in a project area, and made it safe, whereas in the remaining parts the Authority’s social mobilisation teams are engaging with people, warning them about potential hazards and preventive measures. “The houses and shops are situated so close to one another that if a fire starts at one point it can engulf the entire place in no time,” he adds.

Lashari also speaks of working on laws and rules about the businesses inside the Walled City. “There are sites that are at high risk, such as the perfume market, plastic market, cloth markets, and leather markets.”

It is a worrisome fact that despite having similar causes and challenges to overcome them, there is no end to incidents of fire. It appears that precautionary (fire-safety) measures are either not taken or they aren’t up to the mark.

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The abovementioned conditions are not specific to the Walled City. In a fire incident last month, around 70 shops in Township area were gutted, because of close proximity to each other. The fire-safety mechanisms were also quite insufficient.

Fareed Uddin Zaidi, an official at Rescue 1122, Lahore agrees that such incidents occur mainly due to short-circuiting. “In most cases, it [short-circuiting] happened after the businesses were closed. Had there been anyone around, they would try to douse the fire and might save the place from a disaster.”

He urges people to get their electricity wiring routinely inspected, install quality circuit breakers, and switch off the electricity supplies from the main switch when leaving the place. “In winters, heaters are a major cause of fire and, therefore, must be used with caution.”

Farooq Ahmed Butt, an office bearer at the All Pakistan Wapda Hydro Workers’ Union, rejects the general notion that electricity wires outside the residential and commercial places are faulty and lead to short-circuiting. “It’s actually the wirings inside the building premises that deteriorate over time and are likely to heat up when there is greater load on electricity for longer periods,” he says.

“People go on adding to the load on electricity wires but they wouldn’t change or upgrade them.”

The reason is often electric short-circuiting.

According to Butt, the electricity supply companies now ask for a certificate of quality of wiring before approving an electricity connection. “Turns out that it’s just a formality! The certificate is issued without the concerned authority following the required procedures. At times even the circuit breakers fail because they are of inferior quality. What happens is that the electricity supply is not suspended even after short-circuiting. This leads to fires.

“People spend millions on buying building spaces but they often ignore maintenance issues. Visit any place, and naked and worn-out wires hanging from above are a norm.”

Butt advises the people to not leave their hi-load appliances unattended for long periods, and also give them time to cool.

Zahid Hussain, an insurance company agent, is of the view that making fire insurance compulsory for shops and marketplaces will help. “Before selling their policies to their clients, the [insurance companies] make sure that the premises [of a building] are secure by default. A problem here is that businessmen avoid documentation, and value assessment of their stocks.


The writer is a staff member and can be reached at [email protected]

Walled City Lahore and recent incidents of fire: How to overcome the challenge?