As winter comes along in Arunachal Pradesh, there are two things that are almost a certainty: shortage of water and electricity supply, and reports of fire accidents from various pockets of the state.
Last November, ten houses were gutted in a devastating fire that occurred in Hija village in Lower Subansiri district. The fire occurred in an area where the houses were densely packed. Although in this case the fire tenders were able to reach the site because there were no obstructions to their movement, the burning down of ten houses is no joke. All that the firemen ultimately succeeded in doing was to stop the flames from spreading to a larger area.
However, this is not always the case; in some instances, there is hardly a route for fire tenders to take to the site of the accident. On December 22, 2016, 57 houses were reduced to ashes in Wakka village in Longding district. It also charred an old woman to death. The village stands on a mountaintop, and the houses there are made of bamboo and straw – ideal conditions for a wayward spark to burn down the houses. There was no way that a fire tender could make it to the village.
However, the matter of fire tenders not being able to access sites of fire accidents is not limited to far-flung villages. It happens all the time in the towns and cities of Arunachal Pradesh – and the reason is obvious. In the greed to occupy whatever plot is available, people build houses on any available space, without caring whether or not there is a proper lane running through the locality in order for fire tenders to move in in times of emergency. They realize the folly of their action when a fire actually occurs and takes their houses and properties down. But then the others never learn from the mistake of their neighbours and continue building houses haphazardly wherever they can. And the cycle continues.
On the other hand, the fire department is seriously undermanned. Suffering as it does with inadequate men and machineries, how much can it really be expected to during fire emergencies? Then again, it may also be asked if the firemen – who are expected to be at the ready at all times – are provided refresher training from time to time in order for them to stay prepared. How fit are they?
After every fire accident, the state government, predictably, issues words like ‘shock’, ‘grief’, ‘solace’ and ‘ex gratia’, and cautions the people of the state to take precautionary measures to avert fire accidents. Is this enough? Why can the government not take steps to upgrade – overhaul, if necessary – the fire department? Why does it not conduct recruitment drives for unemployed youths to join the fire service? In some countries, youths dream of becoming firefighters. In India, woefully, nobody is interested. In Arunachal Pradesh, the fire department is so out of mind, it’s almost like the postal service: it operates in the background.
While it is true that the people must wake up now, start considering fire as a serious hazard, and assist the authorities in ensuring that, in case of fires, the fire tenders have easy access to the site, it is also true that the government must immediately equip the department with enough manpower and fire tenders, so that it may do its job without having to face criticism in the wake of every fire accident.