Nobody is convinced by Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan’s statement ruling out sabotage in the blaze at Mantralaya that claimed five lives and destroyed several official documents on Thursday. There are a few indicators for the growing suspicion that the fire may have been orchestrated. Two years ago, when the regular fire audit warning was served on the government, it was ignored. It was as if fire was not a potential reality. Strangely, this was around 2010 when the Adarsh Housing Society scam had broken out, and it was discovered that an illegal 104-apartment society had come up on one of the costliest real estate stretches in South Mumbai. The society which was originally meant to be a six-storey structure to house Kargil War heroes and their relatives, was extended to 31 floors reportedly without mandatory permission, with top politicians and their kin, retired Army officers and senior bureaucrats colluding to corner flats in the building.
What has fueled suspicion of sabotage in the Mantralaya fire is the fact that the blaze broke out on the floor where the Adharsh papers were shelved. It was important to rid off the papers, since it would have cost the politicians involved in the scam dearly, if the truth was out, with careers of several leaders in jeopardy.
The fire also indicates how our ministers/bureaucrats are safeguarding documents pertaining property and related matter. Evidently, this trend is not limited to Maharashtra, but the malaise is caught on in Goa where documents of controversial projects suddenly disappear while in government domain. Not many can forget the manner the papers pertaining to the up market housing project at Bambolim mysterious disappeared after some miscreants broke into the panchayat office and burnt the office. This was at a time when some activists dragged the issue in court. Starting a fire therefore has emerged as a novel modus operendi by the corrupt to wriggle out from tight situations.
If the Maharashtra government is really sincere in its professed claims, it ought to trace the inward and outward register and locate the various files. This, because the blaze has thrown open opportunities for circumventing the authorized position of the State government and others on various issues.
Back in Goa, there is little doubt that the government too is not serious about maintaining official records for posterity, what with birth certificates disappearing and records in Archives missing. More recently, the village panchayats had asked owners of residential houses along the coast to provide proof of existence of their residential houses before 1991 simply because their own records were in disarray. This indeed is the grim reality and displays the level of protection the government offers its citizens vis-a-vis their land records.
Triggering fires is also an easy way out for the corrupt government officials to get out from tight corners. Now information sought under RTI can easily be responded to citizens with an excuse that all official records are lost in fire.
The Goa government ought to learn lessons of the Mantralaya blaze and prepare an audit on the fire safety scene in all departments, with follow up action to be taken within a time frame. Protecting government records is vital to maintain sanity in the system, else setting ablaze offices is poised to be a common tool for corrupt politicians to escape penal action for their misdemeanors.