Friday, June 2, 2017

L for Learning - from The Chennai Silks Fire Incident

Chennai’s T. Nagar, which is world-famous for its shopping hub has been in the news for a wrong reason since the past few days. One of the largest Retailers from Tamil Nadu, The Chennai Silks’ retail showroom had a minor fire on the wee hours of Thursday, 31st May 2017. And gradually the fire spread all through the building eventually burning the entire building down. The building constructed over seven floors had a floor-plan violation and a case is pending in the Indian Courts for a long time now to decide whether their violation was acceptable or otherwise. The Ministers, Corporation Officials and others in the Government who were hand in glove all this while have distanced themselves suddenly and alleging that the Retailer did not take adequate measures which led to this tragic incident. Fortunately, and as per media reports, no one was injured nor any casualty was reported in this tragedy since the fire was first observed at 4.30am and apparently the Fire Tenders reached by 6am. It had taken about a day and half and over 100,000 litres of water to douse the fire completely. As I write this column, the Government has decided to demolish the building as a safety measure for the entire area – including residences on the rear side as well as the hundreds of shops around this structure.


This was a nightmare that I have envisaged over the past 20 years of my active life in Indian Retail and this sad event actually occurred which I am unable to come to terms with. The callousness of business houses as well as the attitude and apathy of the officials in allowing such illegal structures without adequate safety norms, especially fire safety, is to be abhorred.  How on earth can a seven storeyed structure come on up a narrow 50 feet road and which has a flyover right opposite it’s fascade? No wonder the Fire tenders were unable to do much due to lack of space for this purpose which is one of the prerequisites of seeking approvals while constructing such a large structure. And a minor fire couldn’t be doused by the 14 staff who were in the shop at the time it occurred goes to show how much importance some of us Retailers give to fire-safety norms.


It is being widely discussed on social media through messages on Whatsapp that the Retailer paid Salaries exactly on 1st June to its employees and also creditors were paid their dues. As a retail chain of 50 years with 17 stores across 14 cities, I would expect them to have these simple systems and processes in place. While I respect the fact that the Retailer went about disposing it’s duties, how would the Retailer compensate the loss and livelihood of thousands of people involved in their businesses who have their outlets in and around the building where tragedy stuck? The Secretary of the Association of Shops in T. Nagar pegs the loss at Rs. 50 Crores per day. While the Retailer itself would have insured for the stocks, property and losses, who will compensate the losses of others who have been disturbed by this incident?


To give you a perspective, the Sales turnover in and around Usman Road, T. Nagar is pegged at about Rs. 18,000 crores pa. Yes, you read that right.  It’s not just the sheer volume of sales that occur here but the livelihood of the people who are part of the ecosystem here. Will the Courts take a cognizable view in this front and punish those guilty and set an example? Time will tell.

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