Cinema tragedy may kill complacency among elite

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The Independent Online
The cinema fire which killed 57 and injured more than 100 in South Delhi on Friday evening was India's fourth disastrous fire in less than six months.

But unlike those which killed 200 religious devotees in Orissa in February, and 41 in Tamil Nadu earlier this month, this one occurred under the noses of India's ruling class. Some of them even lost their lives. The family of a former government minister, and a cavalry officer who had just returned from winning gold medals for equestrianism at the National Games in Bangalore, were among the dead.

The fire broke on the first day showing of Border, an epic about the 1971 war with Pakistan, just as Pakistani bombs began to explode on screen. Had it happened during the earlier screening, Delhi's film critics could have been wiped out en masse.

Whether the proximity of the disaster to the centres of power will persuade the authorities to do anything to make India's death-trap cinemas safer is another matter. If words were deeds, India's public buildings would already be the safest in the world: 12 government reports have been published on the subject.

But in the Uphaar Grand Cinema in Green Park, a wealthy suburb, none of the safety features taken for granted in the West was in place. The exit doors were locked from the outside, and in any case did not lead out of the building. There were no illuminated exit signs, and the hall was very overcrowded. This was apparently the third fire at the cinema in a month, and the sixth in the past 10 years.

The fire is believed to have broken out when a transformer located on the ground floor of the recently-refurbished cinema short-circuited. Burning oil spread the flames to cars parked nearby in the indoor car park.

When the power failed, the cinema's staff apparently concluded that the fault was a routine power cut, and switched on the building's generator - thereby sucking smoke through the air-conditioning ducts into the auditorium. Four of the cinema's staff have been arrested and charged with culpable homicide.

India's celebration of 50 years of freedom has got off to a tragic start. While Britain and the United States have launched major events, in India itself Border, a war story that panders to Hindu chauvinism, is the closest thing to a commemorative gesture that has been made to date. That, at least, is how it was seen by the film critic of the Indian Express, Shubra Gupta (she missed the fatal screening by an hour), who declared it "a good way to celebrate the 50th year of our independence"- even though, as she noted earlier in her piece, "the anti-Pakistan sentiments, which had the crowd roaring in approval ... made me uncomfortable." The only positive note is that so far no one has suggested the fire was caused by a terrorist bomb.

t Istanbul (Reuters) -- Pakistan's Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, said at a summit of Muslim nations in Istanbul on Sunday that he was deeply concerned about the deployment by India of short-range Prithvi missiles along the border with Pakistan.

The Indian premier, Inder Kumar Gujral, has denied a US newspaper report of the deployment of the Prithvis, which Islamabad says pose a threat that Pakistan will take the "necessary measures" to meet.