(Mr. Mohammad Saleem Beg, 61, was born and raised in Srinagar. He was educated at the S.P. College and the Gandhi Memorial College, receiving his Bachelor's degree from the latter. He was awarded a EEC fellowship in 1998 which allowed him to attend study courses at Universities of Luven, Belgium, and Trinity College, Dublin. Mr. Beg entered the State government service in 1975 and retired in 2006 as the Director General of Tourism. In the 31 years of public service (which included two deputation assignments in New Delhi), Mr. Beg promoted local arts and crafts, and raised public awareness of Kashmir's rich heritage and architecture. He was a leading figure in getting Srinagar listed as one of the 100 most threatened heritage cities by the World Monument Fund in 2008. Mr. Beg has traveled extensively and has attended numerous conferences, including the 1997 UN Special Session on Environment in New York, and the 1997 Kyoto Convention on Climate Change in Japan. His articles and essays have been published in various publications. Since retirement, he has remained active as the Convener of the J&K Chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage - INTACH.)
FIRE SAFETY & HERITAGE BUILDINGS
Natural and manmade disasters have been a bane of Kashmir’s turbulent history. Wars, human neglect, lack of appreciation for prevention and precaution have taken a heavy toll on life and property down the centuries. Of all these, fire has been the most potent due to inherent fragility of the construction materials used in Kashmir. All local histories from Kalhana to Hassan have listed the major fires that have taken a huge toll of built areas.
Fire has also been used as the weapon of war for the warring parties that still lives in the psyche of people here. One of the factors in the dread of fire has been its capacity to inflict large scale destruction and there are good reasons for that. Architecture is essentially about use of local building materials. Kashmir has always has easy access to timber from forests. Srinagar city had forests even within the city limits. Tashwan, Khywan, Harwan, Mekhalwan etc are names of forests in and around Srinagar that supplied timber for construction. Though the decorative elements of wooden architecture have a direct link with central Asia, Srinagar was celebrated as a city with wooden houses that surpassed many other prominent Asian cities like Samarqand and Bukhara in architecture and ornamentation. Mirza Haider Duglat, the renowned Mughal adventurer and a great 16th century historian while praising the intricate and ornate nature of building crafts of Kashmir, says that he has not found such excellent and fine wood work in central Asian cities. However this excellence brings with it the fragile and disaster prone nature of wood especially due to fire. The traditional wooden architecture in historic cities all over the world is facing threats of fire, decay and unsympathetic interventions by way of alterations and additions within their buffer. There is a UN charter in place that grants protection to the wooden architecture detailing out the threat as also the mitigation of these threats.
The 25th June tragedy at Dastgeer Saheb should be a wakeup call for all the stake holders. Over the years actions by the devotees, Waqf and Intizamia committees have further accentuated the risk factors at the shrines. Most of these are located in densely inhabited areas. There has been a mad rush to build by additions to the monuments and/or newer constructions for commerce or otherwise on whatever open space is available around them. As a first, addition of new structures as well as interventions in the shape of adding false ceiling, creating mazanines etc. must be stopped to provide adequate breathing space and buffer to the shrines. There is also urgency now to acquire buildings in and around the shrines and convert these into open areas by removing the structures.
Comprehensive management and preservation plan:
Conservation and preservation processes for monuments and buildings have now evolved in to some very effective management skills and ideas which are endorsed by conservation institutions as effective tools for preservation. These processes lay down a protocol that has to be drawn up by the owners and stakeholders in the form of a comprehensive preservation plan. These plans also enunciate an assessment of fire and structural risks in the form of safely audit and a proper management control. The present maintenance and management practices especially at the shrines and religious monuments are abjectly lacking in expertise and basic awareness about disaster management and mitigation. A vigilant, round-the-clock team of volunteers, preferably from the khuddams and local community, with participation and overall supervision of Wakf Board’s own surveillance needs to be set up. There has to be an emphasis on Fire prevention rather than fire fighting. It is shocking to find that the shrines are a free for all affair and any devotee can add or alter an electric or architectural fixture without any consideration to the fire or structural risks. A case in point that came to our notice just a fortnight back was at the most significant shrine of Shah Hamadan in Srinagar. This shrine is nominally declared as a protected monument by Archaeological survey of India who have installed some fire extinguishers at the shrine. Nobody in or around the shrine had any idea about operating the extinguishers in the event of an emergency. The management systems have to be put in place so that all protection and prevention issues are tackled in a coordinated manner.
Essentials Of A Fire Management Plan:
An effective fire management plan must be based on the two basic principles - Prevention and Protection.
PREVENTION shall involve Identifying all possible ignition sources and inflammable material, undertaking periodic electrical circuit tests, having all appliances including PA systems, fixed and portable, tested for safety. Last 25 years have seen massive additional electric load on the electric distribution system in most of the shrines. Illumination of shrines is a recent phenomenon. Such an extensive spread of wires around most fragile wooden elements is a dread for anybody who understands fire risks. An immediate revamp of electric gadgetry including removing the frivolous and unnecessary ones, wiring, circuit distribution etc must be undertaken. Combustible materials (e.g. kangri, incense, candles etc.) should only be allowed inside the building with utmost precaution.
PROTECTION shall include use of fire resistant paints and wires, installing firefighting equipment like fire hydrants and fire extinguishers and more importantly training of staff and volunteers for quick response to any emergency. In the present scenario, security and policing should be part of prevention practices. The personnel must undergo periodic mock drill to test and hone up their risk preparedness. They have to be acquainted with site conditions including access route, site problems
Not much thought is given to evacuation of people in case of emergency. Our shrines have huge problems of access and emergency evacuation. Most of the religious monuments have a single entry and exit opening. While the devotees assemble in the premises over longer duration, exiting is a rush game. It is advisable to provide for emergency exits where ever possible in the shrines and hospices. This can be done by creating emergency exits by imaginatively modifying existing widow or other openings.
The Dastgeer Saheb incident has lessons for all of us and there has to be an adequate and appropriate response from all the stake holders. These monuments are icons of faith across the communities. Alongside the spiritual merit, these are sacred spaces and it is our bounden duty to pass on these to the succeeding generations in the state and form in which these were received by us.