For the past few weeks, fire safety in Bengaluru has come under the scanner. With high-rises dotting the city's skyline, it isn't clear whether all these buildings are compliant of fire safety norms laid out by the city administration.
Rules for highrise buildings in Bangalore are stringent. Builders must follow norms for setbacks, elevators, inhouse fire safety equipment, service ducts, electricity supply, exit routes, a published fire safety plan and more. See our fire safety norms article for more.
One of the key factors that decides whether compliance is required is the height of the building itself - the height decides whether a building is a high-rise or not.
The BDA's Revised Master Plan (RMP) 2015 defines a high-rise building or a multi-storeyed building as a "building of a height of 24 metres or more above the average surrounding ground level." BDA officials therefore say that a No Objection Certificate from the fire force department is required only for buildings above 24 metres in height.
But the National Building Code (NBC) defines a high-rise as "all buildings 15 m or above in height..." The BBMP and the Karnataka State Fire and Emergency Services (KSFES) say they follow the NBC.
There is a logic to the 15 metres number. KSFES's current Inspector General of Police (IGP) and Additional Director General P S Sandhu explains that the NBC's 15 metres was decided by authorities of Bureau of Indian Standards, on the basis of the height of a manually-operated extension ladder of 35 feet (roughly 11 metres) working height. Fire departments around the country use this ladder for buildings of 15 metres height.
The BBMP's Building Bye-laws 2003 defines a high-rise building as a "building with ground floor plus four or more floors above the ground floor". Ground floor plus four floors roughly translates to 15 metres in height or about 50 feet.
This confusion in the law amongst multiple bodies prevails at a time when unauthorised constructions and plan sanction violations have come under scrutiny in Bengaluru.
BDA makes unexplained change from 15 to 24 metres
For tackling fires in buildings beyond 15 metres in height, specialised vehicles need to be used by the fire force. In Bangalore, the KSFES has two such vehicles, one with a 30-metre high ladder and another of 37 metres. These can reach upto the ninth and eleventh floors of a building respectively. Because these machine operated-ladders are scarce resources, the fire department prefers the cut off for fire-safety compliance to be lower, i.e. the NBC's 15 metres and not 24 metres.
The BDA's Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP) of 1995 defines a high rise as a building that is 15 metres in height or above. But this was changed to 24 metres in 2005 when the master plan was revised. Under the Karnataka Town and Country Planning (KTCP) Act, CDP for Bangalore has to be revised every ten years.
It is unclear why this change was made. When the CDP was being revised in 2005, a draft, dated June 2005 was sent to various government agencies including the KSFES. This draft defined hi-rises as above 15 metres in height. But when the final RMP came out on June 25th 2007, the definition of a high-rise had the 24 metres norm!
A highly placed official in the state government attributes this change in definition to the builders lobby. Citizen Matters, however, has not independently verified this claim.
Meanwhile, noting this, the fire department wrote a letter dated August 8th 2007, to the BDA Commissioner. In this, the Director General of Police (DGP) and Director of KSFES Dr Jija Hari Singh sought clarification from the BDA. "Now, without further communication or reference, the height has been increased to 24 metres", the letter says. Sandhu says that the BDA has not yet responded to this letter.
Throughout India high-rises are defined by the 15 metre norm except in Mumbai (24 metres) and Ahmedabad (18 metres). Sandhu says that in Mumbai the 24 metre norm for high-rises is because of the vertical growth in the city. He is not sure as to why the BDA made the sudden change in the definition here in Bangalore.
BDA's loss of memory
Interestingly, BDA officials themselves do not know why the change was made from 15 to 24 metres. Speaking to Citizen Matters, BDA's Town Planning Member S S Topgi says that this decision was taken by a core committee that looked into the revision of the CDP. "It is not a decision taken just by the BDA. It is taken at a higher level", he says, adding that the change would not have been made without any consultation.
Again, the situation is frustrated by the fact that the current crop of officials weren't at the helm at that time. Topgi says that since he wasn't with the BDA then, he is unaware of why the change was made between the draft and the final RMP.
Suprisingly, BDA Commissioner H Siddaiah also claimed no knowledge of why this change was made. "You can ask the town planning officials. I wasn't in BDA when Master Plan was revised. I don't know", he says.
The BDA Commissioner's 'I don't know' is most surprising. After the Carlton fire, one would expect city authorities to have a heightened sense of alertness about high-rise buildings and fire safety regulations. In line with that, the BDA's top brass ought to have already come to know about the gap between BBMP's norms and the BDA's and should have attempted to resolve it with the BBMP. And yet, the two organisations operate independently and the BDA's top official - Commissioner - only says 'I don't know'.
BBMP overrules BDA
The RMP is the key zoning regulation for the Bangalore Metropolitan Region (BMR). This is a statutory document and provides a framework for planning and development in the city.
But as far as fire safety goes, the BBMP and fire department say they are strictly following the NBC. BBMP's Joint Director of Town Planning B M Tirakanagoudar says, "We are following 15 metres which the NBC says. We are not following what the RMP says. Why should we?"
This indicates that the BBMP has chosen to overrule the RMP's definition of a high-rise building. And yet, for other matters such as rules for plan sanctions (approvals) the BBMP follows the RMP.
Take the case of a convention centre plan sanction that was approved in Panduranganagar (off of Bannerghatta Road). Earlier this year, when Citizen Matters pointed out an error in this plan sanction to a BBMP town planning official, he clearly stated that they follow what the RMP says. Even in this case, due to an oversight, the town planning department had incorrectly sanctioned the plan for this convention centre.
Further, the RMP's high-rise building definition of "24 metres and above" appears to be a hastily done change. Town Planning Member Topgi points to a regulation in Appendix II wherein the architect/planner/engineer of a building should give an affidavit stating that his building has been "designed as per the specifications prescribed in the NBC 2005 and publication of the Bureau of the Indian Standard 1893-2002 for making the building resistant to earthquake and also as per fire safety norms". This in turn would mean that buildings above 15 metres in height would also need to comply and contradicts the RMP's definition of a high-rise.
To each, their own
At a time when the city has witnessed at least one major fire tragedy and several fire incidents thereafter, this inconsistency in what laws need to be followed, should be a matter of grave concern.
Remember, even as the RMP itself is a document meant for the entire city, it has met the ire of several citizens as the BDA cannot independently formulate and undertake development work without the approval of the Bangalore Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (BMRDA). The KTCP Act was amended to make the BMRDA the ‘Director of Town Planning' through which any CDP is submitted to the state government for approval. A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) (Read Citizen Matters' report on this here) regarding this matter is still in the High Court.
The BMRDA Act, 1985 says that the BMRDA is the prime authority for the planning, coordinating and supervising the proper and orderly development of the area within the BMR. This was done to ensure proper coordination between various local bodies in the city.
But each body seems to be overruling the other and following their own rules. In this case of the definition of a high-rise, there is lack of clarity on what needs to be followed in Bengaluru. With the BDA itself unable to explain why the 24-metre height was included in their RMP, and the BBMP and fire department claiming they do not know why this was done, Bengalureans have been left in the lurch, with more questions than answers. ⊕
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