The damaged paying guest accommodation in Sector 32 after fire on Saturday. (Photo: Kamleshwar Singh)
TTHREE GIRL students — Pakshi Grover (19), Muskan Mehta (22) and Riya Arora (19) — were burnt alive while two others — Famina Sardana (23) and Jasmine (19) — suffered injuries in a fire that broke out in an illegal paying guest accommodation, where they were staying.
The fire broke out about 3.50 pm and it took more than an hour for the firefighters to douse the flames. All five were rushed to the Government Medical College and Hospital, Sector 32, where doctors declared Pakshi, Muskan and Riya dead while Famina and Jasmine were admitted. Both Famina and Jasmine, who suffered abrasions and bruises, were discharged from the hospital late in the evening.
According to the police, Jasmine was on the first floor and jumped off the rear balcony when the incident happened. Since there was a make-shift roof on the ground floor, she fell on it and did not suffer any major injuries. Famina, who was on the second floor, tried to cross over to the neighbouring house’s terrace. A neighbour tried to help her, but she slipped and fell down into the neighbour’s house. She, too, luckily escaped with minor injuries.
While Muskan, a native of Hisar, was pursuing her post-graduation from SD college, Pakshi, a native of Kotkapura in Punjab, was a student of BBA first year at SD college. Riya, a native of Kapurthala in Punjab, was pursuing a language course in French from Alliance Francaise, Sector 36. Famina was preparing for her UGC-NET exams while Jasmine was a BBA first year student at SD college.
The incident happened in house no. 3325, Sector 32, Chandigarh. Short circuit in one of the electricity points in a cubicle where a girl was charging her laptop is presumed to have caused the fire. However, fire department officials said that they would conduct a thorough inspection of the spot to ascertain the exact cause of fire.
The occupants told the fire department officials and the police that they had complained of “sparking in the electricity points” to the caretaker earlier too, but the problem persisted.
At the time of the incident, Babbu Bains, a caretaker of the PG, was present on the ground floor but she managed to escape well in time as the fire majorly engulfed the first floor portion of the house.
Later in the evening, the police registered a case against Gaurav Aneja, owner of the house, and Nitesh Bansal and Nitish Popli whom Aneja had given his premises to run the PG accommodation. While Bansal was arrested, Aneja and Popli were at large. Aneja runs a confectionary shop in Sector 32 and stays with his family in another house in Sector 30. Both Bansal and Popli are residents of Rania in Sirsa district of Haryana and had been running this PG illegally since December 2018. Earlier too, Bansal was booked on February 5, 2019, under Section 188 of the IPC (violation of District Magistrate’s orders) for running illegal PG in some other house. He was subsequently held guilty by the court for violating DM’s orders and fined Rs 200 on November 30, 2019.
“We have registered an FIR at Sector 34 police station against Aneja, Popli and Bansal on charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder, act endangering life or personal safety of others and violation of District Magistrate’s orders,” said Inspector Baldev Kumar, SHO, Sector 34 police station.
“So far, we have not found any registration documents showing legality of the PG. We lodged the FIR on the basis of a call that was received at Police Control Room. The complainant is a policeman. We have arrested one of the accused. Exact cause of fire shall be given by the fire department. CFSL teams too shall inspect the spot tomorrow,” said Vinit Kumar, officiating SSP, Chandigarh.
Deputy Commissioner Mandip Singh Brar said, “I have asked SDM (south) to investigate the matter and submit a detailed report.”
The 250 square yards double-storey house (ground and first floor) with a separate room on the second floor has been in use as PG accommodation since December 2018.
The occupants were being charged Rs 12,500 per month for single-occupancy cubicle while Rs 10,000 was charged for the double-occupancy cubicle. These included stay, electricity, water and food charges.
A Chandigarh Newsline team that visited the spot after the firefighters had doused the flames found that as many as 34 women and girls were accommodated in around 12 cubicles.
Wooden and pre-fabricated (PVC) material was used to create partitions which, the UT estate office says, is a violation of the standard safety norms. While in some of the cubicles, bunk beds were being used by the occupants, the others had cots. There was no firefighting safety equipment installed on the premises.
On the entrance of the house, a room was being used as office space by the caretaker of the PG, Babbu Bains, while the room on the second floor was found locked. It was not yet clear for what purpose the room was being used.
A common kitchen was used to cook meals for the occupants while five washrooms were shared by the occupants.
“There were 25 women present in the PG this morning. But fortunately most of them were out of the house when the incident happened. At the time of incident, there were five girls and a caretaker in the house,” one of the area residents told Chandigarh Newsline.
The UT estate office’s records on the Chandigarh Administration’s website show that the house was converted into “freehold” from “leasehold” in 2013 and is currently owned by Gaurav Aneja, his wife Kashish Aneja and mother Kamlesh Aneja. All three are currently staying in another house in Sector 30-B, according to the UT estate office’s records.