In the wake of the Bhandara hospital fire tragedy, state’s Minister for Relief & Rehabilitation Vijay Wadettiwar expressed the need for advanced fire fighting system in rural areas. However, top state government officials said there was no fire fighting system at all in rural areas. None of the 34 zilla parishads in Maharashtra has a fire brigade at their disposal.
“In the wake of Bhandara hospital tragedy, there is a need to set up an advanced fire fighting system and conduct fire and safety audit of buildings,” Wadettiwar told reporters after visiting the Bhandara hospital on Saturday.
In Maharashtra, 28,813 gram panchayats function under the zilla parishads, which run primary health centres and hospitals in rural parts. In all, there are 1,814 primary health care centres in Maharashtra besides 23 district hospitals, 361 rural hospitals with 30 beds, 58 sub-district hospitals with 50 beds and 28 sub-district hospitals with 100 beds. All these operate in rural areas. In case a fire occurs in a residential or commercial area, government offices or in hospital or other health facilities, the fire brigade has to be summoned from the nearby municipal council or municipal corporation. It causes a delay in the fire fighting activities as civic bodies are located far away from rural areas, said a government official.
State’s Additional Chief Secretary (Urban Development Department and Panchayati Raj) Rajesh Kumar said, “It is true that there is no fire brigade system available in rural areas. The Zilla Parishad Act does not make provision for the fire brigade. However, the municipal councils and municipal corporations have their own fire fighting system in place.” While municipal corporations have effective fire fighting system, municipal councils, like gram panchayats, are laggards when it comes to fire fighting system, officials said.
“In the wake of the hospital tragedy, I feel there is need to set up a fire fighting system in rural areas as well. We will have to put a proposal before the cabinet,” Kumar said.
Top government sources said the Directorate of Fire Services does not have an IAS or IPS officer as its head. “In Karnataka, an IG-level officer heads the Directorate of Fire Services. In Maharashtra, IAS or IPS officers do not head the Directorate of Fire Services. As a result, the fire services are not run effectively,” said an official, on the condition of anonymity.
K C Karkar, retired additional collector, Pune, said, that in case of fire incidents in rural areas, they have no other option but to approach the municipal councils or corporations. “By the time the fire brigade arrives from city areas, the damage is already done. I don’t think any thought has ever been given to set up the fire brigade facility or provide proper fire fighting services in rural areas,” he said.
Karkar said gram panchayats with meagre budgets cannot be expected to set up fire brigade facilities and look after them. “Since there are thousands of gram panchayats and they have meagre budget, at least at taluka level the fire fighting system can be set up. This system has never been given a serious thought by successive governments…,” Karkar added.
In Pune district, there are two municipal corporations, three cantonment boards and 14 municipal councils. Pune Metropolitan Region Development Authority (PMRDA) commissioner Suhas Divase said, “MIDC and municipal corporations have proper fire fighting system but even municipal councils do not have effective systems because of lack of finances. In the last year or so, PMRDA has taken maximum care of fire incidents in rural areas in the district.”