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Delhi, dining under the stars no more

| | in Agenda
Delhi, dining under the stars no more

Is the rooftop cafe ban in some parts of the Capital simply a domino effect or the need of the hour? Sanya Dang surveys some areas and lays down the facts

The rooftop is a significant part of a building — whether it is at home or a commercial space. At home, the rooftop may be used for playing cricket, football, or as a recreational area for different activities — painting, singing and dancing. Sometimes, it is converted into a kitchen garden or party area. In olden days, terraces functioned as an area where one could escape to in order to avoid the overcrowded house or uninvited guests. It was used to dry clothes, spices and chillies, was a popular haunt for youngsters in love and this is where neighbourhood romances blossomed.

Till date, it is used for kite flying, throwing water balloons and playing Holi. It is synonymous with space, freedom, and recreation. Many homes have converted their rooftops into commercial spaces — as coaching centres, language schools, salons, boutiques or summer camps. The rooftops in a commercial building are used as a party zone, storage area or as a stage/platform for budding singers, writers, comedians or to stage live events and shows — sufi nights, comic acts, jazz events, or book readings and launches.

But what if, say, one is banned from using the house terrace for anything except (hypothetically speaking) solar panels? Not only would it be restrictive but also something imposed on you. If the authorities set up the panels and use it for their profit, how would you, as the house owner, feel?

Let us say the situation is slightly different — the panels are installed over each residential rooftop by the authorities (with or without a subsidy) for domestic use or set up by the homeowner for domestic/commercial use. Then who do you feel has the right to benefit from this installation? The authorities, you or both? Something similar has been happening to rooftop cafes and bars across Delhi, especially in central zones like Connaught Place and Khan Market. Read on to find out what this hullabaloo is all about.

Even before the Kamala Mills fire broke out on December 29 last year, the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) had already started sealing many restaurants in CP. This sealing was triggered by the building collapse on February 2, 2017, over the iconic Jain Book Agency in C block. This sudden caving in of the heritage building was followed by another incident when the roof of Unplugged Courtyard in L block also collapsed exactly a week later, raising questions about the structural stability of other buildings.

These incidents led to sealing of 21 rooftop restaurants, bars, and cafes in CP — My Bar Headquarters, Warehouse Cafe in D block, The Vault in F block, Kinbuck2, Kitchen Bar in C block, Lord of the Drinks, Open House Cafe, Jungle Jamboree, Boombox Cafe, Farzi Cafe, House of Commons, Hotel Palace Heights, Office Canteen Bar, Luggage Room, Cafe OMG, Unplugged Courtyard, Barbeque Nation, Turquoise Cottage, Teddy Boy, The Niche and Cafe Public Connection .

Connaught Place, it is argued, is a heritage area which should not be subject to such unmitigated proliferation. The truth is it is also an old construction which wasn’t meant for so many cafes operating in one building. It not only puts pressure on the plumbing and other wiring but also on the walls and flooring. The recent proliferation of restaurants in CP has led to many violations of safety norms and building bye-laws. Many cafes and rooftop bars have been operating without authorisation, trade licenses, and the requisite safety measures in place.

In 2015 as well, roofs of 13 restaurants were sealed due to violation of safety norms, after which the owners were made to sign an affidavit by the NDMC.

It can’t be denied that rooftops not only ensure better revenue for restaurant owners but also make a good place for people to meet, chat, drink, and smoke in the open area. Open areas, balconies, and rooftops bring in higher revenue as they are perfect spots for private parties, hookahs, and live singing. In pleasant weather (November and February), they are sought after for parties and get-togethers as guest love to soak up the sun or get cosy with a drink while a band is playing alongside. They help you enjoy the stunning view of the city as you dine. A terrace for a restaurant is its selling point and covering balconies means extra tables and thus extra revenue.

Post the building collapse in February 2017, most restaurants, where rooftops were sealed, reported 50 per cent loss in business (almost `2 to 4 lakh a day) and more on weekends. The NDMC started conducting door-to-door checks in the wake of the building collapse. But a few months later, these rooftop places reopened — by either getting a stay order in court or by showing that their roofs are used only for gensets and water tanks, not for commercial activity. Now once again the sealing drive has begun, triggered by the Kamala Mills fire.

According to the New Delhi Traders’ Association, the NDMC is using this as a divide and rule policy to break a united stand against “pedestrianisation of CP”.  The traders are opposing this as it would affect their business and it has already — due to the pedestrian walking zones, parking of cars near cafes has become difficult. This has made many people drop CP from their list and move instead to malls and other neighbouring markets like Khan Market.

Central markets like CP and Khan Market have a very high property tax for restaurants, which is why many restaurants prefer to use balconies and rooftops to make extra money. But the NDMC rules that these spaces should be used for safety equipment, fire exits, and other such paraphernalia. Restaurant owners and managers claim that they use these places only to store extra things and not for customers. The tussle between the NDMC and cafe owners will continue, it seems, with each blaming the other.

Structural safety certificates are now a necessity as nobody wants a repeat of the Mumbai tragedy. Buildings that are more than 50 years old lose their capacity to hold heavy machinery — if they keep adding floors, generators, mobile towers, and water tanks, they will eventually cave in — like it happened in CP at two places.

The rule that is easily flouted is the one that pertains to the number of minimum seats required to obtain clearances from the fire department. A seating capacity of more than 50 needs clearances but restaurants flout this rule by showing a capacity of 48. This law needs to be revised as there should be zero tolerance towards flouting of fire and safety norms. Restaurant managers give their defence by saying how they conduct regular fire safety workshops and mock drills to be able to evacuate people during fires.

The opposite happened in Mumbai — the staff of 1Above and Mojo Bistro were not prepared; they sent people to the washrooms instead of an exit. Both places did not have emergency exits or any working fire equipment. They had made extensive alterations to the structure of the building, illegally occupying the large balcony area. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) had earlier demolished their balcony, raided these restaurants and even taken them to court. But it did not cancel their licenses.

When licenses are not outrightly cancelled, there is speculation that the law enforcers may be getting kickbacks from the business concerned. All these issues come to light when tragedy strikes, innocent people are hurt and then the authorities are blamed as are the cafe owners, who turn a blind eye to safety norms, just focussing on the revenue. Didn’t we learn enough from the Uphaar tragedy that happened years ago but still gives us goosebumps?

The rooftop party ban is not only on CP, but also Khan Market and Lutyens’ Delhi. Khan Market has 156 shops and 74 residential spaces, of which 44 are commercial and 30 are cafes. Only 10 eateries are on the ground floor, while the rest are located on the first or second floor. Second and third floor cafes are extremely unsafe due to lack of emergency exits and narrow winding staircases. The market has narrow lanes, narrower entrances, and open wiring everywhere. Even open kitchens may not be the best idea in these circumstances. Haphazard development is a fire hazard and can lead to suffocation and stampede in case of a fire. It is a crowded market with one of the highest real estate in the city.

The economic viability of many cafes is maintained by encroaching on spaces like balconies and rooftops. So, in the blind ambition of gaining more revenue, many restaurants focus on superficial redevelopment and bypass the important fire safety norms. The world today is all about earning the big bucks and putting their best face forward — this dictum applies everywhere, sadly even to businesses where money is the sole operating factor and nobody thinks of spending on things that can save lives. 

Balance needs to be achieved and maintained here to avoid a repetition of the Mumbai tragedy; there should be extremely strict guidelines for cafes, licenses should be given after stringent checks and not bribery. No compromises should be made in the safety department. Staff should be acquainted with the safety drills and focus on helping customers first as exemplified by the Taj Bombay staff in the wake of shooting by Ajmal Kasab.

Heritage buildings should not be given license for lifts if the infrastructure is weak and old. Commercial licenses should not be given to all and sundry — illegal operations should be heavily fined and punished. Khan Market has become so congested that if the need arises, fire trucks may not be able to even enter the lanes. Some shops and cafes that were sealed recently by the NDMC were Wok In The Clouds, Amrapali, Khan Chacha, Smokeys BBQ and Grill, Geetanjali, Jawed Habib and Affinity. Many are being forced to pay conversion charges — levied for misuse of land, to be paid if land meant for residential use is converted into a commercial establishment.

Infrastructure should evolve with the times. Take the example of Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in the heart of the city, where the parking area has been increased underground to accommodate the growing number of cars. Maybe the difference lies in not having a commercial angle at the end of the day, but cafes and shops have to be less selfish and think about the larger good, the bigger picture.

Even though this random (or not) shutdown doesn’t solve the real issues, it is a warning for new, emerging businesses. The ban is logical if you see the bigger picture and care about your safety, but not so rational if seen with the greedy eyes of an investor. What we need to ensure is that the cafes that are still operating are doing so under the strictest compliance to the rules and regulations laid down by the authorities and special committees set up for this purpose. And the cafes that are allowed to reopen are also doing so because they have the safety procedures in place and not because they greased the palms of some official or filed a PIL in court.

The Kamala Mills tragedy is a wake-up call for all of us — all Metro cities and other tier towns as well. We should have learnt from the Uphaar tragedy to not make those mistakes again, but history repeats itself to teach us a lesson in case we forgot the previous one.

Dang is a writer by passion and a teacher by profession

 
 
 
 
 

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