Restaurants in Delhi are divided into two categories - those that allow below 50 patrons and those which have more. The smaller restaurants are expected to regulate themselves and this is where, officials say, they get away with having no safety regulations at all. What's worse is though licensed for 48 people, these restaurants end up allowing many more.
At the posh Hauz Khas Village in south Delhi, the fire officials NDTV accompanied found bar stools piled in front of fire exits practically blocking them, poor signage and staircases obstructed with furniture and potted plants. All of these are violations of the Fire Safety Rules 2010, but the official could not penalize the restaurant owners, because the eatery was licensed as a 48-cover restaurant.
Explaining the over-crowding, Rahul Sharma, who owns a club in Hauz Khas Village, said, "We can seat 48 people, but because we have a dance floor 300-400 people can stand".
Restaurateurs are aware that licensing rules do not exclude standing guests. "The number of guests in a restaurant isn't the seats you have, it is the head count," said Satinder Sarna, President, Hauz Khas Village Traders Association. "This means people standing or sitting, and it is very dangerous to cross that number."
Only restaurants that are licensed to seat 50 or more people are required to obtain a No Objection Certificate from the Fire Department. For them, there is a 20-point checklist that includes multiple exits, clear exit signs, and up-to-date extinguishers and hoses. But of the four restaurants in Hauz Khas Village that have NOCs, two are closed.
GC Mishra, the director of Delhi Fire Services, is aware of restaurants using 48-seat licenses to escape stringent fire laws, which can often be expensive to implement. He told NDTV that as a result, a market like Hauz Khas Village can be a very dangerous place in case of a fire incident.
"Due to the closely crowded buildings the rate of fire spread will be too high, construction is fragile, and there is no space for fire vehicles to move," said Mr Mishra. "It is also risky for my men to enter these buildings when they are on fire, they can only stand 15-20 minutes. This is a dangerous condition."
The fire department says a new set of rules for smaller restaurants are under consideration, but a timeline has not been provided. Until then, it remains up to restaurant owners to honestly enforce their capacity and voluntarily implement measures to ensure the safety of their customers.