Smart or dumb: Cities should be safe

Bhubaneswar emerged as the top candidate among the 20 cities chosen to be part of the Government of India’s Smart Cities Mission. One hopes that the plans of turning the city into a smart one will include strengthening risk resilience, particularly in places that are supposed to ensure safety and health of the citizens.

By Nidhi Gupta (@nidhi1902)

Image credits: NAVFAC (Monthly Safety Stand Down) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Image credits: NAVFAC (Monthly Safety Stand Down), via Wikimedia Commons

A major fire that broke out earlier this week in the SUM Hospital in Bhubaneswar took lives of over 20 people and caused injuries to over 100. The fatalities caused were mostly patients who were on ventilator support in the ICU ward. One was immediately reminded of the fire that broke out at Murshidabad Medical College and Hospital in August this year and the one at the AMRI Hospital in Kolkata in 2011. Given the large number of hospitals that the country has, these incidents of fire may seem statistically insignificant. However, some places of safety (like the hospitals, police stations, etc.) are expected to not only have zero tolerance for human negligence and errors, but also a foolproof disaster management plan. Incidents such as these point to our society’s stubbornness to not learn from history and to our Government’s callous attitude towards loss of life and property.

A healthcare facility in Odisha is governed by the Odisha Clinical Establishments (Control and Regulation) Act, 1990, which lays down standards relating to fire safety. However, it has been reported that only 3 hospitals out of the 568 in Odisha currently have the clearance from fire department and most of the hospitals lack the basic fire-fighting equipment. Moreover, SUM Hospital did not follow fire safety norms and overlooked an advisory that was issued to them by the fire department in 2013. While the hospital management at the SUM Hospital has asserted that owing to diligence shown by its staff the casualty number was low, it can be argued that there should have been no casualties in the first place.

Passing the buck around or offering some monetary compensation does little to console the victims’ grieving families. Reactionary measures like suspending hospital staff (as in the case of SUM Hospital) or board of directors (as in the case of AMRI hospital) cannot be substitutes for ensuring the structural and operational resilience of hospitals. It is of utmost importance that the healthcare facilities in our country are regularly audited for compliance with safety standards and that the staff is periodically trained on safety and evacuation. It is also imperative that the management of facilities found with dubious certificates are heavily penalised. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) of India has issued very comprehensive guidelines for hospital safety, including those for fire safety in hospitals. While these guidelines are not binding, it is expected that hospitals implement these in earnest and be prepared to handle any disasters and be optimally functional immediately afterwards in order to respond to the medical requirements of the affected community.

Bhubaneswar was ranked first in the Smart City Challenge competition held by the Government of India earlier this year and is one of the 20 cities each of which will receive Rs 1000 crore of funding from the Centre and the State Governments. One sincerely hopes that the emphasis being laid to improve “quality of life” for the citizens will also include measures that ensure that the lives of the said citizens are first protected.

Nidhi Gupta is Head, Post-Graduate Programmes at the Takshashila Institution and tweets at @nidhi1902

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