A view of the charred remain of several houseboats, floating Guest Houses, which were gutted in a massive fire in Dal Lake, Srinagar city of Jammu and Kashmir on Saturday morning, November 11, 2023. KT Photo/Qazi Irshad
SRINAGAR: Three Bangladeshi tourists were charred to death in the world-famous Dal Lake when a devastating fire broke out along Ghat Number 9 in the wee hours of Saturday morning, damaging at least seven residential huts and five houseboats in Srinagar, summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir.
As per the local news gathering agency, one of the survivors said that the fire started around 4.30 AM (IST) extensively damaging five houseboats and as many as seven residential huts, depriving its occupants of the shelters in the harsh winter. “The structures have been badly damaged from bottom to top. The loss incurred is estimated at around Rs 15-20 crore,” he said. In the fire, three Bangladeshi tourists, who were staying in a Safeena Houseboat, floating Guest House, died and were identified as Anindaya Kowshal, Das Gupta and Mohammad Moinud, the Srinagar police said. The surviving families said that the officials have been visiting the spot to assess the damage and are hopeful that they could provide them some reprieve. They said that constructing the damaged houseboats back is impossible as the kind of wood used in those is hard to find now, with the next challenge of the unavailability of the artisans who had constructed the structures. “A call was received by us around 5.17 AM (IST) about the fire and we immediately rushed to the spot. A number of structures were engulfed in fire at that time, prompting us to bring more support from Batamaloo and Gaw Kadal fire stations, located in Srinagar city centre. After the strenuous efforts, we were able to contain the fire,” said the Station Officer Dal Lake, Farooq Ahmad.
Bodies of victims retrieved
The bodies of the tourists were retrieved from the debris of the gutted houseboats near Ghat 9 on the Dal Lake, a popular attraction for people visiting Jammu and Kashmir’s summer capital, the officials said.
The Jammu and Kashmir Lt Governor Manoj Sinha condoled the deaths.
Sinha said, “I am deeply pained by the loss of lives due to the unfortunate fire incident at Dal Lake, Srinagar. My heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families. I have directed the District Administration to provide all necessary assistance to the affected persons.”
Srinagar Deputy Commissioner Mohammad Aijaz and senior tourism department officials visited the scene of the blaze on the Dal Lake and assured all possible help in rebuilding the damaged houseboats, the officials said.
8 Tourists Rescued Through Collaborative Efforts
Eight people were rescued through collaborative efforts of the Srinagar Police, State Disaster Response Force, Tourist Police, Fire and Emergency Services, and locals, the police spokesman said.
Police said an investigation into the incident has been initiated and a report filed at Ram Munshi Bagh police station.
The cause of the fire, which engulfed five houseboats and as many huts attached to them, was not immediately known, the officials said. They said preliminary investigations suggested that the fire broke out in one of the houseboats in the early hours due to malfunctioning of a heating appliance.
Giving details, the police spokesman said, “The conflagration quickly spread and engulfed five houseboats – Safeena, Sabreena, Young Gulshan, Lala Rukh and Khar Palace – in its flames. Seven residential huts and neighbouring houses in the vicinity were also gutted in the blaze.”
DNA Samples Of Victims, Survivors Collected
The officials said DNA samples were collected from the victims to establish their identities, adding one of them was a woman, according to the records maintained by the houseboat operators.
The bodies of the fire victims will be handed over to the family members only after matching the DNA, the police officials said.
This was stated to be the second major fire incident involving houseboats which are anchored on the Dal and the Nigeen Lakes. In April 2022, seven houseboats were gutted in a devastating fire on Nigeen Lake, mostly popular among foreign tourists, on the outskirts of the city. However, no one was hurt in the previous incident.
Political Leaders Express Shock
Leaders of different political parties across J&K have also expressed their grief over the loss three precious lives in the fire incident.
The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) also expressed its grief over the fire incident and said, “It is indeed a great loss to the heritage houseboat population.” Javid Ahmad Tenga, the KCCI president, in a statement urged the Lt Governor-led Jammu and Kashmir administration to assess the losses and extend the necessary moral and monetary compensation to the victims on a war footing to ensure their rehabilitation.
It also demanded quick permission for the reconstruction of the gutted houseboats and for ensuring supply of the required quantity of timber at the earliest.
Increase In Fire Incidents In Kashmir
There has been a spate in fire incidents in the recent years in Kashmir. In the most recent incident on November 9, the top floor of a commercial building was damaged in a fire incident in Bagh-e-Mehtab area of Srinagar.
There was no loss of life or injury reported in the incident.
According to official data, the number of fire incidents in Kashmir in 2016 was 2707. In 2017, it decreased to 2310. Around 2150 fire incidents occurred in 2018. In 2019 and 2020, 1833 and 1900 fire incidents occurred in Kashmir respectively. But the number of fire incidents rose to 2058 in 2021.
Fire incidents in 2022
The year 2022 witnessed an increase of over 30 percent in the total number of fire incidents.
According to official figures in 2020, 1900 fire incidents were reported around the Kashmir valley while in 2022, 2500 fire incidents were recorded in Kashmir valley. During these fire incidents, a total of 1700 structures were damaged and 37 persons lost their lives.
Srinagar district witnessed the highest number of fire incidents. 414 structures were damaged and 5 people lost their lives during 566 fire incidents reported in Srinagar alone.
406 fire incidents in Baramulla resulted in 4 fatalities and 241 damaged properties.
In north Kashmir’s Kupwara district, four people died and 7 were injured, 221 structures were damaged in 328 fire incidents.
271 documented fire accidents in south Kashmir’s Anantnag resulted in 3 fatalities and 2 injuries. Additionally, 219 structures suffered damage.
A total of 219 incidents of fire were reported each from the districts of Budgam and in Pulwama, which resulted in the damage of 112 buildings and 111 structures in Budgam and Pulwama respectively. 6 fatalities were reported from the Pulwama district.
Central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district reported a total of 173 fire incidents. one person has died causing damage to 85 buildings, 15 shops, 3 automobiles, and 10 electric transformers.
9 people were killed in Kulgam in 145 fire incidents. 117 structures were gutted during these incidents. A total of 120 structures were damaged in the 163 documented fire incidents in Bandipora, where one person died.
Four people died in South Kashmir’s Shopian and 89 structures were damaged in 94 incidents.
Drop in fire incident in 2023, says government
The government claims there was a drop in fire incidents in 2023.
In September 2023, Alok Kumar, the Additional Director General of Police (ADGP) of Fire and Emergency Services (F&ES), said that Jammu and Kashmir has witnessed a 31% reduction in fire incidents.
From August 2022 to July 2023, the region saw a significant decline in fire-related emergencies, with only 4,000 incidents reported compared to the previous year’s 59,000.
An exact break up of region-wise and district wise data on the fire incidents during this period is not available.
Reasons for increase in fire incidents
A paper by J&K Policy Institute in 2022 attributed the increase in fire incidents to a number of factors which relate to and reinforce each other.
These include population growth and urbanization, infrastructural negligence and lack of proper fire extinguishing equipment. The paper quoted Dr. Shujaat Hussain Buch, a civil engineer specializing in fire and earthquake engineering, as saying that lack of space created by a rising urban population and multi-story buildings without adequate widening of roads, leading to blockage of approach lanes, increases the risk of fire hazards. The use of building materials, with excessive reliance on combustible materials like wood and use of faulty gas heaters and outdated and worn-out wiring systems were also listed as major contributing factors.
As regards lack of proper fire extinguishing mechanisms, the report said that no new fire station has been established for the last five years due to administrative reasons. The only River Fire Station that the former state had was shifted in 2008 to Kohna Khan and was kept in a makeshift arrangement. It mentioned that sometimes, even institutional structures do not have proper fire safety mechanisms in place, putting a number of people associated with these institutions at great risk of losing livelihood, limb, or life.
Houseboat safety norms
In April 2022, the Jammu and Kashmir government constituted a committee at the senior level for registration, renewal, and operation of houseboats in Dal and Nigeen Lakes besides a legal framework for enforcing the policy. The committee is responsible for inspection of the houseboats to ensure compliance with all laid down norms and procedures including structural safety, fire hazard, sewage, and waste disposal. The committee is also mandated to scrutinise all documents of the houseboat for renewal of the registration.
A year before that the government introduced a draft policy on houseboats. The policy capped the number of houseboats in the Dal Lake and Nigeen Lake at 910.
Under the new policy, the houseboats are required to be registered online subject to the fulfilment of various conservation parameters; within 30 days from the date notification of the policy. The houseboats and associated structures are required to be fitted with bio-digesters for scientific treatment of solid/liquid waste as per the approved design of the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority, besides ensuring availability of adequate fire safety equipment along with trained staff to be verified by fire and emergency services department.