Sat, 22 Feb 2003

The fire: Who's to blame?

Tanah Abang market, the biggest textile market, and one of the oldest, in this country, was partially destroyed by fire on Wednesday. This is the third time since it was renovated in 1975 that fire has burnt down a good part of the market, which was first established by a Dutchman way back in 1735.

At least 1,000 kiosks were incinerated by the blaze. Billions of rupiah in losses were inflicted on their owners as most of them had no time to save their merchandise.

One eyewitness said that the fire started from an electricity substation located on the first floor in Block A, and spread within minutes to other parts of the building, turning hundreds of kiosks filled with bales of cloth to dust.

The blaze, which is the fourth major fire to occur in Jakarta this year, elicits a few questions. For one: Does the market have an adequate fire protection system, including fire exits, as all major public facilities are supposed to have?

On paper, the four-story Tanah Abang market building has 125 hydrants, 24 fire extinguishers and 12 water pumps installed. Oddly, only one of those 125 hydrants was reportedly working.

No one denies that the market has an adequate number of fire exits, but all the spaces in and around them were at the time of Wednesday's fire occupied by vendors, which made it difficult for the fire fighters to get closer to the blaze. This leads us to the second question that needs to be addressed, and it concerns the problem of ignorance.

It is public knowledge in Jakarta that fire protection systems in almost all public and multistory buildings are woefully inadequate or not working as they should. What reason can there be for this if not indifference to the life and property of others -- or plain ignorance?

It is highly probable, then, that ignorance was the most basic reason behind the Tanah Abang fire. Assuming that the statements of eyewitnesses are true, then there must be something very wrong with the electrical system.

And more stupefying, if the report saying that only one of the 125 hydrants was working was true, then there must also be something terribly wrong with the fire protection system in the building -- or with the people who are supposed to look after it.

It could be, then, that the Tanah Abang fire is a blatant example of thousands of people falling victim to indifference, or ignorance. Last year's records indicate that 397 out of the total 869 fires that occurred during the year were caused by electrical malfunctions. Eight-nine fires were caused by cooking stove- related accidents, and 79 by burning cigarette butts carelessly discarded by smokers.

Does the State Electricity Company (PLN) not regularly check the electrical systems in public buildings, including the city's markets? Does the fire department regularly check the fire protection systems, including the hydrants and fire exits, in buildings frequented by the public?

According to Johny Pangaribuan, the head of the Jakarta Fire Department, his men last checked the entire fire system in the Tanah Abang market in 1997 -- and found the hydrants in the building to be all out of order.

"All the hydrants are operated by pumps, but the pumps were poorly maintained," Johny recalled. He said that he had reported the findings to the market management, the city-owned PD Pasar Jaya, but claimed he had no idea why there had been no response to the reports. But why Johny did not report the matter to a higher authority? Official reports say that 152 out of the 900 hydrants installed in all five municipalities in Jakarta are out of order. So why is action not taken? Could it be that the twin evils of corruption and collusion are once again at play?

The 11,000-square-meter Tanah Abang market, standing on a 2.6 hectare site, has more than 7,600 square meters of open space, which is always packed with roadside vendors. Vendors also crowd the fire exits in the building. The fact that daily fees are imposed on all vendors by PD Pasar Jaya probably explains this chaotic situation.

City Bylaw No. 3/1992 on fire prevention provides that the owners of business premises must ensure that all necessary fire protection and prevention systems in their buildings are in place and ready for use. Those violating the bylaw are subject to three months in jail or a Rp 5 million fine.

The Tanah Abang market building has been destroyed and the traders have lost their belongings. Unfortunately, no insurance company is reportedly willing to cover claims arising from fires in city-owned markets.

Many people, especially Jakarta administration officials, say it was an accident. But the pertinent question is: Who is responsible for the fire? Will the bigwigs in City Hall wash their hands of their matter or try to pass the buck as usual?

Could action be brought under the bylaw against the management of PD Pasar Jaya if the city-owned company is later found guilty of negligence? Would it be possible for the traders to sue PD Pasar Jaya for having caused the inferno, either directly or indirectly?

Johny Pangaribuan said that Tanah Abang was one of five major markets in Jakarta that were vulnerable to fire. The other four were South Jakarta's Mayestik market; the biggest garment market in the country in Cipulir, also South Jakarta, and Kramat Jati and Jatinegara markets in East Jakarta.

From the economic and security points of view, there is no other choice but for all the relevant institutions at City Hall to wake up and carry out their fire prevention duties properly. Wednesday's blaze in Tanah Abang provides an appropriate opportunity for all the relevant institutions and officials to learn how to accept responsibility for their actions.