Delhi eateries with less than 50 seats continue to flout fire safety rules

Of an estimated 5,000 restaurants in Delhi, a mere 600 have ever been checked for fire safety norms adherence because of a legal confusion that allows all establishments that seat less than 50 people to avoid scrutiny, and officials allege that many of the 4,400 unchecked establishments show their seating at just below the threshold to get licences without the proper inspection.

The Delhi government has called for fresh scrutiny after a blaze claimed 17 lives on February 12 at a Karol Bagh hotel that was found operating without crucial clearances, a locked fire exit, and a raft of illegal modifications that virtually made it a tinderbox.

“Thousands of establishments in Delhi may never have been scrutinised to check whether they adhere to fire safety rules since they show themselves as having a seating capacity of less than 50 people,” said an official of the Delhi Fire Services (DFS), asking not to be named.

Establishments such as restaurants, cinema halls and offices need to obtain a raft of no-objection certificates (NOCs) to get a licence to operate from the local municipal office. An NOC from the DFS used to be one of those mandatory documents, but the National Building Code laid down in 2005 and observations by the Delhi High Court striking down its provisions have led to a legal confusion that now allows small establishments to get licences without needing a fire department NOC.

The Delhi High Court, in 2016, said the basis of differentiating establishments using the 50-guests rule was arbitrary and that all must seek the fire safety certificate. But the order was never properly implemented as agencies cited a “lack of clarity”. This means that the 4,400 establishments, which say they seat fewer than 50 guests, do not need to have fire safety equipment or an alternative emergency exit – critical prerequisites for obtaining a fire safety clearance. The DFS official quoted in the first instance said clearance certificates of these restaurants is not the responsibility of their department and municipalities are supposed to inspect restaurants in their areas to ensure they follow the prescribed seating limitations before issuing licences.

A senior health department officer of the North Delhi Municipal Corporation said violations are routinely shared with DFS. Chief Fire Officer Atul Garg, too, said that restaurants take advantage of the legal loophole, and many falsely show a lower seating capacity during inspections. “We do not have the required manpower to inspect restaurants regularly to ensure they are following the norm. In case violations are brought to our notice by the local municipal agencies, we take prompt action,” Garg said, explaining that the fire department depends on alerts from civic authorities