It has been 10 years since a massive fire broke out at the Mantralaya, on June 21, 2012, and gutted nearly four floors of the state secretariat. Several crucial departments damaged by the fire — Public Health, Medical Education, Rural Development and Water Supply — still operate from other buildings. Plans to shift these departments back to Mantralaya seem to have been shelved for the time being.
The fire started in a small cabin on the fourth floor and slowly engulfed the fifth, sixth and the illegally built seventh floor of the building. It took nearly three years to repair the damage caused by the fire and renovate the affected parts.
Jayant Banthia, the then state chief secretary, said, “When the fire broke out in Mantralaya, I was with our divisional commissioners. My office was on the fifth floor and we smelt something burning. I sent my colleague, Praveen Pardeshi, who told me that there was a huge fire and we would have to leave.’’
The fire, which started on the fourth floor, spread fast due to the many files and documents kept in the secretariat’s rooms, and soon engulfed vast swathes of other floors. It claimed five lives and left 16 seriously injured. As many as 64,000 files were damaged in the blaze.
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Soon after the incident, NCP chief Sharad Pawar had suggested that the existing Mantralaya structure, constructed in 1955, must be demolished and a new building must be built. But according to sources, the Congress, which was NCP’s coalition partner in the then state government, refused to listen.
“Following a check of structural stability, we found that the building was still standing strong, and decided to refurbish it. Mantralaya is the seat of the state government. We vacated some important departments and shifted Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan and Deputy CM Ajit Pawar to the first floor,’’ said Banthia.
Permission was also sought from the Bombay High Court to shift some departments to the GT Hospital complex, and important departments like Health and Medical Education were moved there. Two other crucial departments, Home and Revenue, were temporarily shifted to the World Trade Centre.
To renovate the damaged parts of Mantralaya, the Public Works Department (PWD) hired an architect called Raja Aederi, said Banthia.
“The top bosses proposed a system followed in western countries, where visitors are not allowed in departments, but this was opposed by MLAs. In the plan made by designers, joint secretaries, deputy secretaries and under secretaries were not supposed to have cabins. But they insisted on having cabins and Banthia faced tough opposition. Finally, the bureaucracy agreed to give cabins to all. As a result, offices of Public Health, Medical Education and Water Supply remained in the GT Hospital complex. The Rural Development department, which coordinates with all zilla parishads, operates from the Bandhkam Bhavan of Public Works Department,’’ said a top PWD officer.
Banthia said while there was also a plan to extend and redevelop the Mantralaya’s annexe wing, it was shelved later. He pointed out that offices of the Election Commission, Lok Ayukta, Chief Information Commissioner and Right to Information Chief Commissioner, which function from the New Administrative building, can be shifted out and four state departments can take over their place. “But these offices are controlled by retired senior officers who refuse to leave the Mantralaya complex. If the Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission can function from the World Trade Centre, why can’t these departments move,” asked Banthia.
“As of now, there is no plan to bring the four departments to Mantralaya,’’ said Additional Chief Decretary, PWD, Manoj Saunik.
But logistical issues often crop up as state department offices are spread across different buildings. “Our toughest moments were during the first and second waves of Covid-19, when officers of both Health and Medical Education departments, who had no office of their own in Mantralaya, had to camp there to attend meetings with the state chief secretary. The GT Hospital complex is located a km away from Mantralaya and each round trip takes 30 to 40 minutes,’’ said a senior officer of the Health Department.
However, the refurbished Mantralaya has its own advantages, said Banthia. There is a fire fighting system in place and the cafeteria has changed. There are also fewer rodents.
Senior Congress leader Prithviraj Chavan, who was the chief minister in 2012, said, “This incident was tragic and unfortunate. It was one of the darkest times of my career.’’
When asked about why a new building complex was not constructed, as suggested by Pawar, Chavan said, “We thought it was impractical.’’
Former chief fire officer of Mumbai, Prabhat Rahangdale, was the divisional fire officer in 2012. “That day, I was in High Court for a case and saw smoke. We responded immediately. But our turn-table ladder had great difficulty because of parked vehicles and some other impediments. The passages were also blocked.’’
Rahangdale, who retired as deputy commissioner of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation in April this year, said haphazard planning inside Mantralaya was a challenge even now.
The nearly 64,000 files that were destroyed in the fire included records of several officers and cases. Since then, the state government has started keeping scanned copies of all files.