The Bombay High Court-appointed judicial committee inquiring into the fire at Kamala Mills Compound in Mumbai in 2017 held that the hookah served at Mojo's Bistro restaurant was the immediate cause of the fire.
According to media reports, the committee said, "The immediate and probable cause of the fire was that hookah was being served in the southern corner of Mojo's Bistro restaurant with the help of charcoal burning segree (stove) on the open terrace with inflammable material all around and a crowd of youngsters dancing around."
The committee also recommended action against a co-owner of the premises and owners of the two restaurants, blaming them for the incident. The fire at two rooftop restaurants " Mojo's Bistro and '1Above' " at Kamala Mills Compound in central Mumbai on 29 December, 2017 claimed 14 lives.
The three-member committee submitted its report to the high court on Monday. It was made available on Wednesday evening.
Gowani, who holds 95 percent stake in the Kamala Mills property, permitted the restaurant owners to make unauthorised additions to the structures, it said.
"The owners of both the restaurants committed flagrant violations in converting the entire open terrace into two full-fledged restaurants divided by a partition of highly combustible material and covered by equally inflammable material, such as cotton curtains, plastic covers, etc.
"To make the situation... fatal for the patrons who died due to asphyxia...there was no trained staff or security personnel to guide them in case of emergency," it said.
One of the waiters of 1Above directed 13 patrons to an illegally constructed toilet block which had no exit or ventilation, and as a result all 13 and the waiter himself died of suffocation, the report noted.
"The rear side of the terrace was blocked, and the terrace area was used for stocking inflammable material such as liquor, kerosene and coal. Also, the terrace was used for serving hookah. All of these were in violation of the licence terms and the fire norms," the committee said.
The committee also criticised the officers of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the state government for granting hasty permissions under the guise of Ease of Doing Business (EODB), reported The Indian Express.
"Most of the NOCs, licences, approvals, permissions, etc, have been hurriedly granted for reasons best known to the officers concerned, who are now taking shelter behind EODB. We strongly condemn such illegalities and recommend that proper checks and balances must be provided and strictly implemented," the committee said.
Superintendent of State Excise AB Chaksar and Excise Inspector Sandeep More and Vijay Thorat ignored apparent violations of licence terms at the two restaurants, it claimed. To avoid such tragedies in future, better coordination between government departments and implementation of "stricter checks and balances" to ensure there is no violation of construction or safety norms in commercial areas are needed, the committee said.
The three-member committee headed by Justice (retired) AV Savant and including architect Vasant Thakur and former municipal commissioner K Nalinakshan was set up by the high court in April.
The panel was formed by a bench headed by Justice Bhushan Gavai in response to a public interest litigation filed by former Mumbai police commissioner Julio Riberio demanding safety audit of all restaurants and pubs in Mumbai. Gowani and six owners of the two restaurants were arrested by police after the fire.
With inputs from PTI