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Friday's fire raises fears that many Delhi movie halls ignore safety norms

George Iype in New Delhi

Lax fire safety drills, unsafe electric installations, lack of smoke alarms and emergency exits have made many cinema theatres in New Delhi virtual death traps in the event of a fire.

The Delhi Vidyut Board and Delhi police have nearly concluded that the cause of Friday's fire at the Uphaar cinema was due to an ill-maintained transformer installed inside the theatre's basement.

The disaster has forced various Delhi government departments to launch an intense drive to test the safety standards of Delhi cinema halls.

"We fear many theatres in Delhi are death traps as they hardly observe fire safety norms," says Delhi Fire Services Deputy Chief Fire Officer N K Batra.

According to DFS rules, Batra said every movie theatre was duty-bound to train its staff in the all important fire drill. "The staff is to be given mock fire drill exercises, to use the fire extinguishers properly and to quickly move crowds to the exit," he said.

But at Uphaar, cine-goers found the exit doors blocked, which is a serious violation of the rules.

As per DFS requirements, there should be one exit for every 150 people in the hall. All exists should be kept unlocked while the film is being screened.

But even Delhi's elite Priya Cinema at Vasant Vihar with a capacity to seat nearly 2,000 people has only three exit doors.

The Delhi Development Authority has stipulated that 12 metres around the cine hall's premises should be kept vacant to ensure that there is space for fire tenders during an emergency. But Priya Cinema's nearest building is just 12 feet away.

"It is incredulous that many of these theatres are being operated without observing the minimum specifications of fire safety," says Additional Commissioner of Delhi Police Maxwell Pereira.

"We have decided to launch a serious drive to ensure the safety standards of Delhi cine halls," he told Rediff On The NeT.

According to him, the theatre owners have to get certificates from different government departments to finally acquire a no-objection certificate and licence to run the shows.

Thus, the Delhi Fire Service has to ensure that each movie hall keeps the fire safety rules with regard to fire extinguishers, wiring, basement, fire alarm and a sprinkler system.

It is the job of the department of health to ensures cleanliness in the hall while it is the responsibility of the Delhi Vidyut Board to check electrical fittings and ensure that the transformer room is fireproof with natural ventilation.

The excise department, which levies entertainment tax, has to ensure that every safety standard is in order, that the exit doors are unbolted and that no one is allowed to be seated in the aisles.

"We have imposed these rules and regularly check the transformers and electric wiring of the theatres. But it is likely that many theatres -- with as many as seven shows daily -- do not care much for crucial security details," says Delhi Vidyut Board chairman Navin Chawla.

The DVB has laid down strict norms for electrical installations in theatres: The transformer should be serviced, dehydrated and the oil used in the transformer should be as per the specified norms; the transformer should be housed in a fireproof and waterproof structure, adequately ventilated by outside air.

But with the tragedy at Uphaar proving that most of the theatres have failed to observe the dos and don'ts of safety rules, many movie-goers may now think twice before entering the city's unsafe cine halls.

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