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Levana fire case: Allahabad High Court rejects plea challenging suspension of Chief Fire Officer

A single-judge bench of Allahabad High Court while hearing a petition filed by Vijay Kumar Singh did not grant him relief. The Chief Fire Officer Vijay Kumar Singh was suspended in the Levana Hotel Suites (lucknow) fire incident.
03:18 PM Nov 03, 2022 IST | India Legal
levana fire case  allahabad high court rejects plea challenging suspension of chief fire officer
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The Lucknow Bench of Allahabad High Court has refused to grant relief to the Chief Fire Officer, who was suspended in the fire incident that took place at Levana Suites Hotel in the state capital. 

The Single-Judge Bench of Justice Alok Mathur dismissed the petition filed by Lucknow CFO Vijay Kumar Singh.

The petitioner, who was holding the post of Chief Fire Officer, Lucknow has approached the court being aggrieved by the order dated 10.9.2022 whereby he has been placed under suspension in contemplation of departmental proceedings, with regard to a fire incident which had engulfed Hotel Levana Suites on 5.9.2022.

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In the said incident 4 persons had lost their lives and prima facie the petitioner has been found to be negligent in the preliminary inquiry conducted by a committee consisting of the Commissioner of Police, Lucknow, as well as the Divisional Commissioner, Lucknow Zone, for being responsible for issuance of the no objection certificate despite the fact that on most of the mandatory aspects including the fire service equipment were found to be deficient or non existent.

S.C Mishra, Senior Advocate appearing on behalf of the petitioner has submitted that the order of suspension is illegal and arbitrary and contrary to the statutory provisions contained in the Fire Prevention and Fire Safety Act, 2005.

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It was submitted that according to Section 3 of the Act of 2005 the nominated authority/Fire Station Officer has the power to inspect any building of premises for ascertaining the adequacy of fire prevention and fire safety measures only where the building is of the prescribed height.

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It is submitted that the prescribed height as per the Act is 15 metres, and the height of the hotel in question is below 15 metres and consequently no duty was cast upon the petitioner to make any inspection of the premises.

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It is stated that initially the No Objection Certificate was granted in 2017 by the predecessor in office of the petitioner and in this regard also the petitioner cannot be blamed.

It was further submitted that an enquiry has been conducted by the Inspector General of Police (Fire), who has reported that all the fire safety equipment was installed and there was no deficiency in this regard. On the strength of the said report it was submitted that the petitioner cannot be held responsible for the fire occurring in the hotel premises.

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Counsel for the petitioner has further relied upon the judgement passed for the U.P Public Service Tribunal in the case of Abhay Bhan Pandey who was also previously posted as the fire station officer in Lucknow and against whom disciplinary proceedings were initiated with regard to an incident of fire in hotel on 19/6/2018 where 7 persons had died and in the said enquiry he was found guilty and punished.

The Tribunal held that the No Objection Certificate has been issued subject to inspection by the Fire Station Officer, Hazratganj who had reported that all the fire prevention systems were in working condition and the hotel was below the height of 15 metres and hence concluded that there was no violation of the National Building Code or any rule to hold the petitioner therein to be liable or responsible for the fire incident and consequently set aside the punishment order.

The order of the Tribunal was subsequently upheld by the court as well as Apex Court.

It has been submitted that the legal position has been clarified in the said Judgment and similarly the petitioner also cannot be blamed in such an incident.

Vinod Kumar Shahi, Additional Advocate General while opposing the writ petition has submitted that a charge sheet dated 18.10.2022 has already been issued containing 5 charges, and the disciplinary proceedings are underway.

It was further submitted that the defence of the petitioner can be adequately considered during the course of the enquiry where the petitioner would have liberty to adduce evidence and material in his support to show that the charges levelled against him are not made out.

The Chief Fire Officer has to review the findings of the inspection and issue the no objection certificate. From the material on record it is evident the petitioner was fully aware about the deficiencies in the fire safety equipment installed at the hotel in question, and there was no second staircase which fact has been noticed by the petitioner himself and endorsed at the time of grant of No Objection Certificate but still he proceeded to grant said certificate. Apart from the glaring lacuna that no map was sanctioned for a hotel and even the mandatory safety equipment were lacking including an fire escape staircase which was noticed by the petitioner himself, but still proceeded to issue No Objection Certificate and accordingly it was submitted that these facts are sufficient to initiate departmental proceedings against the petitioners and if these facts are proved, undoubtedly may entail serious consequences.

The standing counsel has further submitted that the impugned order of suspension has been passed after receiving the report submitted by a committee consisting of Commissioner of Police, Lucknow, as well as the Divisional Commissioner, Lucknow Zone where the petitioner has been held to be negligent in his discharge of duties while issuing the no objection certificate to the hotel where the fire erupted and 4 persons lost their lives. This court had directed the standing counsel to produce the material on the basis of which prima facie satisfaction was recorded by the competent authority to proceed against the petitioner.

The inquiry committee had sought reports from various other departments who were responsible for granting various licenses and no objection certificates for running the hotel. According to the report submitted by the Lucknow Development Authority, it has been stated that on 05/05/1984 an application was moved for approval of the map on the said land on which the hotel is existing, for purposes of an office. This application was rejected on 24/03/1986 on the ground that the land use in the said area is residential and such a building could not be permitted without change in land use.

The court has gone into the report which has formed the basis for initiation of disciplinary proceedings against the petitioner only to verify the existence of cogent and relevant material on the basis of which disciplinary proceedings are sought to be initiated against the petitioner. 

‘The court has considered the report submitted by the committee consisting of Commissioner of Police Lucknow as well as the divisional commissioner Lucknow. The said Committee in turn has taken inputs, material and documents from all the concerned departments before submitting their report. The report unequivocally discloses the involvement of petitioner who in discharge in his duties of Chief Fire Officer granted/renewed the No Objection Certificate, and also had sufficient knowledge about the deficiencies in the fire prevention equipment and the mandatory requirements in this regard. The arguments of the petitioner that the decision of initiating disciplinary proceedings against the petitioner and placing him under suspension is arbitrary and illegal without there being any material in this regard, is not made out and is consequently rejected. There is sufficient material as borne out from the report of the Committee dated 09/09/2022 to proceed against the petitioner, hence the writ petition is accordingly dismissed’, the Court observed.

The Court said that,

The enquiry shall proceed against the petitioner in accordance with law and the enquiry officer shall not be influenced or guided by any of the observations made by the Court.

The report of the Committee discloses serious disturbing facts with regard to the functioning of the regulatory authorities who are given the task of ensuring the safety and security of the public at large, and are expected to discharge their duties sincerely following the mandate of law. The Development Authority tasked with the object of ensuring planned development and scrutinising and sanctioning of building maps is permitting rampant construction in total violation of the rules and norms as is evident from the report placed before this Court. It is only when incidents like the present one occur where numerous lives are lost, then only their work and conduct is scrutinised. Further it seems there is a clear effort to absolve all the senior responsible officers who are given sufficient cloak to take shelter like the report of the Deputy Inspector General of Police (Fire).

It is surprising how such a report could have been submitted considering that most of the fire safety equipment was not working as per the report of the Committee. There was no answer forthcoming to the query of the court as to how the hotel was functioning without even having a valid sanctioned map, and all the agencies had come to its aid and granted all the permissions overlooking the basic requirements as provided for in various Government Orders and enactments.

In the Enquiry Committee report it has been stated that the Electricity Department had section a electricity connection of 250 kW for commercial use without even verifying as to whether the hotel was sanctioned. The Excise Department granted licence to run a bar shutting their eyes to the fact that there was no sanction plan and even the mandatory requirements as contained in government order dated 7/10/2013 were not fulfilled, before they proceeded to grant an excise license. The basic documents/material were not examined with regard to the fact whether the applicant does or does not have any criminal antecedents, or he has any liability of outstanding Government dues, before the bar license was granted.

It is expected that a thorough inquiry be held as to how such infraction of rules and regulations has taken place despite a detailed regulatory mechanism has been put in place for grant of all licences/No Objection Certificates.

‘In the above circumstances, it is absolutely necessary that proceedings are initiated against all persons responsible in all departments as per the report of the Committee dated 09.09.2022.

It is the seriousness of the issues involved herein, where lives and safety of ordinary citizens are at stake, that compels us to take cognizance and issue necessary directions to the State to immediately take appropriate and effective ameliorating measures. In this regard let a High Powered Committee be constituted by the Chief Secretary, Government of U.P., Lucknow forthwith, consisting of two Additional Chief Secretaries and Director General of Police to scrutinise the report and the recommendations made by the Committee dated 09.09.2022 and firmly ensure that all the responsible persons manning various regulatory and licencing authorities are proceeded against and secondly to consider the recommendation of the said Committee and oversee that all the rules and regulations are modified so as to ensure strict compliance of the same. The High powered Committee shall not be constrained by the report of the Committee dated 09/09/2022 but may also make its own recommendations in public interest with the object of securing safety and security of the public at large’, the order reads.

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