A fire, two deaths and the business of elder care in India

Kanchan Arora's children (clockwise from left) Sunandini, Vineet, Vivek and Mandakini with their mother's photograph
Kanchan Arora's children, from left, Sunandini, Vineet, Vivek and Mandakini with their mother's photograph [Photo courtesy Mandakini Arora]
Kanchan Arora's children, from left, Sunandini, Vineet, Vivek and Mandakini with their mother's photograph [Photo courtesy Mandakini Arora]

It was still dark at 5:30am on January 1, 2023, when a message flashed on head constable Paramjit Singh’s phone. His police station’s WhatsApp group was reporting a fire nearby.

Singh, a tall Sikh with a thick white beard and grey moustache, got dressed and rushed to the four-storey glass and concrete building in Greater Kailash II, an upscale neighbourhood in the Indian capital. When he reached, orange flames were raging out of two rooms on the third floor of Antara Care Home for Seniors, a high-end, short-stay facility with liveried staff, round-the-clock medical care, attendants and a kitchen service that could rustle up special requests.

Kamal Kumar, 91, once married to the son of Jagjivan Ram, India’s former deputy prime minister, was staying in room 302, which was on the left. Kanchan Arora, 86, a widow and mother of four, was the patient in 301, the room on the right.

People from the neighbourhood were gathered outside the building, including the driver of the house next door who had made the call to the Police Control Room. A call had also been made to the fire department, just five minutes away, but no fire truck had arrived yet.

Inside the elder care home, there was chaos. Young men from the neighbourhood and some food delivery boys were helping patients and their attendants get out from the first and second floors.

On the third floor, however, fire from the two rooms that faced the road was creeping through the corridor and heading towards the emergency exit at the back of the building.

Six patients and their two family members were stuck in the floor’s nine rooms. Some, like Kamal Kumar, were bedridden. Others were on oxygen support or recuperating from a fracture or illness.

There were no water sprinklers, and by the time Singh tried to get in, flames had reached the staircase and the lift, making it impossible to access the third floor from inside the building.

Rescuers were trying to aim fire extinguishers, due to expire in five days, from the staircase at the flames but they were not helping.

3rd floor map
Map of Antara Care Home's third floor, where the fire had started [Suparna Sharma/Al Jazeera]

Heat radiated all around, melting switchboards, air conditioners, twisting the blades of ceiling fans. The plaster on the walls had started to peel and chunks of cement and brick were falling from the ceiling. Every few minutes, a large glass pane would crack and pop, shooting shards in every direction.

Singh rushed down and to the back of the building, climbed up the metal emergency stairs and tried to enter the third floor. In the thick, toxic smoke rising from the burning doors and electrical equipment, Singh saw someone standing in the corridor. “Some old person,” he told Al Jazeera. As he entered, a large chunk of cement and brick fell on him and other rescuers pulled Singh out.

“I got out, but I thought we must try and save this person I could see,” Singh, 51, said.

But Singh’s efforts were about to be stymied by a crisis of negligence in India’s elder care system that is proliferating but remains unregulated.

Singh and others tried to pull out and use the two fire hoses – canvas and rubber ones coiled on either side of the fire escape staircase.

“The fire hose was not working,” Singh said. The water that came out was what was already there in the hoses.

His eyes were burning. Singh covered his nose and mouth with a handkerchief and managed to enter the third floor several times. He rescued six people that day. But he could not save the “old person” he had seen standing in the smoke.

That person was Kanchan Arora, whose 52-year-old son, Vineet, a management consultant based in the United Kingdom, was arriving in the morning to spend five days with her.

At about 10am on January 1, when Vineet reached Antara, he was taken by policemen to the third floor to identify a burned body lying in the corridor.

A few feet away, on the bed in room 302, lay the remains of Kamal Kumar.

LEFT: The corridor of the 3rd floor of Antara Care Home for Seniors in Delhi, India. A man pointing to the spot where Kanchan Arora's charred body was found. RIGHT: Kamal Arora's Room 302 at Antara Care Home for Seniors. Fire started in this room and spread to the next room and the corridor
LEFT: The corridor of the third floor of Antara Care Home for Seniors. A man points to the spot where Kanchan Arora's charred body was found. RIGHT: Kamal Kumar's room at Antara Care Home for Seniors. The fire started in this room and spread to the next room and the corridor on January 1, 2023 [Photo courtesy Vineet Arora]

Vulnerability of 140 million elders in $25.7bn market

India, the world's most populous country, has been classified as an “ageing country”. It has the world’s second-largest aged population - 140 million people above the age of 60 - and with life expectancy increasing, that number is projected to swell.

By 2050, India will be home to 319 million aged, or one in every five Indians above the age of 60, a daunting prospect for a country that has a lofty-sounding National Policy on Older Persons (NPOP) but very little engagement with or investment in elder care.

The federal Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment (MoSJE), which holds the senior citizen portfolio, says it does not have the figures for how many old-age care homes India has, though experts put it at a little more than 2,000.

These "old-age homes," mostly run by NGOs, trusts and charities with the government’s support, are modest facilities that offer basic boarding and lodging to destitute and abandoned elders.

But with 18 million Indians living outside the country and with more moving abroad, or to cities within India for education, jobs or lifestyle, there is a new market emerging with a growing demand for services and facilities that cater to the needs of their parents - urban, middle- and upper-class senior citizens.

This has created what Mansoor Dalal, the chairman emeritus of the Association of Senior Living India (ASLI), calls the “sunrise industry for sunset years”. ASLI is a nonprofit organisation which has businesses in the senior living sector as its members.

In 2021, India's geriatric care services market was worth $25.7bn and by 2028, it will be worth $42.2bn, according to Coherent Market Insights.

Companies now offer a wide range of services of which at-home care has the largest chunk. The senior living market – which includes retirement homes and short-stay, assisted-living facilities like Antara’s – is growing fast.

Some hospitals have launched senior care facilities but this segment is dominated by five big real-estate companies – Antara and Ashiana Housing in the north, Covai Property Centre and United States-based Columbia Pacific Communities in southern India, and Paranjape Schemes around Mumbai.

“It’s largely a real-estate play rather than a service play. And [since] India has no standards for senior living, anyone can set up anything and say this is a senior living facility,” said Asheesh Gupta, who runs Samarth Eldercare, which offers several at-home and online services in over 75 cities.

Guidelines 'gathering dust'

The front facade of Antara Care Home for Seniors' four-storey building. Visible in this image are the two rooms on the 3rd floor (301 on the right and 302 on the left) where fire raged and killed two elderly women in Delhi, India
The front facade of the four-storey building that houses Antara Care Home for Seniors in Delhi, India. The two rooms on the third floor [second from top] are where a fire killed two elderly women [Suparna Sharma/Al Jazeera]

The government has set some standards for old age homes. It has also issued "model guidelines" for retirement homes that are mainly focused on protecting the elderly from fraud but also lay down some basic, physical requirements for these projects.

However, there are no rules, guidelines, licensing, accreditation or regulatory framework for assisted care facilities. Over the years the federal government has set up committees to look into issues associated with elder care facilities, with little or no result.

In November 2021, the MoSJE appointed a six-member expert committee headed by ASLI’s Dalal to recommend quality standards for all senior living and care facilities across the country.

The committee's exhaustive report suggested an accreditation system for all elder living and care facilities based on their compliance with the “mandatory minimum” requirements in governance, training, construction, resident care and safety. Having a functional fire safety system, conducting regular fire drills and designating someone to assist residents evacuate in case of a fire were among the many “mandatory minimum” requirements.

The report was circulated by the MoSJE to all states and by Dalal to the 70-odd members of ASLI, including Antara, a founder member of the association.

But since then, says Mathew Cherian, the global ambassador for HelpAge India and a member of the committee, the document has “been lying in some file, gathering dust".

Kanchan Arora liked a purple tinge in her hair

LEFT: Kanchan Arora's Room 302 at Antara Care Home for Seniors in Delhi, India, after the fire. RIGHT: Personal effects of Kanchan Arora in her room at Antara Care Home for Seniors after the fire
LEFT: Kanchan Arora's Room 302 at Antara Care Home for Seniors after the fire. RIGHT: Personal items belonging to Kanchan Arora in her room at Antara Care Home for Seniors after the fire [Photo courtesy Vineet Arora]

Kanchan Arora cared about how she looked. She liked to colour her thick, short, white hair with just a tinge of purple and her rounded eyebrows were always pencilled in to give them definition.

Her four children, now middle-aged, are settled abroad – eldest son in the US, Vineet in the UK and two daughters in Singapore. When her mobility was better, she would visit them but preferred living in New Delhi where she had friends, siblings and a life she had built. For the past few years, she had struggled to walk, even with the assistance of a quadripod walking stick, so her children took turns to visit her.

On December 2 last year, she checked herself into Antara Care Home for Seniors for 59 days. It was her seventh stay at Antara, and the longest. The facility was just a few minutes' drive from her house, but she found it convenient in New Delhi's cold, foggy winter months. It promised 24/7 medical care and assistance, laundry service and physiotherapy. Plus, she knew the Antara people.

Its founder, Tara Singh Vachani, had met her a few years ago in Singapore when Kanchan was visiting her daughter. Vachani was pitching a retirement home to high net-worth Indian expats with ageing parents in India.

Kanchan was not interested in buying a retirement home, but when Antara opened a short-stay assisted living facility near her house during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Kanchan shifted there for a few days after her caregiver tested positive.

On the evening of December 31, 2022, when Kanchan’s daughters called to wish her Happy New Year, she told them that Antara had organised a party in the basement but she was not going because she found it tiring to keep changing clothes.

“She sounded very happy, very relaxed,” Kanchan’s younger daughter Mandakini told Al Jazeera. Kanchan had gone to a friend’s house to play Scrabble and was looking forward to spending time with Vineet, who had booked a room at Antara on the same floor as hers.

On that last night of 2022, before she went to bed, Kanchan sent Vineet a message: “I hope beautiful things happen to you.” Vineet, who was just about to board a flight, replied, "Thank you, Ma," with two heart emojis.

Turned to ash

“The first thing to burn is hair,” said a forensic doctor, who studied Kanchan Arora's post-mortem report at Al Jazeera's request but declined to be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media. “Then the skin burns and the whole body surface turns into an open wound. All fluids – including plasma in blood – start to exude. Blood concentrates and is not able to circulate in the body.”

A combination of deficiency of fluids and inhaling smoke leads to a “shock” to the organs, causing death. If a body remains in contact with fire even after that, then muscles burn first, followed by vessels. The last thing to burn is bones. They turn to coal, or what forensic experts call being “charred”, and can get detached. If still in contact with fire, they crumble to ash.

What Vineet saw on the floor of Antara Care Home on January 1 morning was not his mother.

The mouth, eyes, nostrils and ears were all charred. Parts of the right arm and leg had turned to ash. The ribcage was charred and open, exposing burned internal organs. And two body pieces – right thigh and left heel – were charred and had separated from the body. They were lying next to Kanchan Arora's four-legged walking stick.

From the postmortem examination, the doctor estimated that she had been on fire for at least 30 minutes to an hour.

Antara, the Arora siblings say, did not even inform them of their mother’s death. They have not received any explanation on how their mother died, or an apology.

Antara has, however, offered to refund a little less than half of the advance deposited for Kanchan Arora’s stay, which the Aroras have not accepted. The Aroras paid 336,716 rupees ($4,043) for 59 days, and Antara offered to refund 155,398 rupees ($1,866).

‘If the water hose had worked’

On the afternoon of 31 December, 2022, the day before the fire broke out at Antara, Rajesh, an employee of Sun Power Company, which had the annual contract to maintain all electrical equipment including the fire safety system, was at Antara because the latter was not working.

Rajesh, along with Antara’s multi-skill technician Mayank, was waiting for the representative of the company that had installed the new pressure switch for the pump attached to the overhead water tank and the fire safety system.

The pressure switch should come on automatically when a fire alarm goes off, creating hydraulic pressure so that when the fire hose is pulled, a thick stream of water gushes out at great force and the fire can be doused from a safe distance.

“The pressure switch was not coming on automatically with the alarm, which meant that you had to stand close to the fire to douse it with whatever water was in the hose,” Ompal Yadav, an ex-army man and the owner of Sun Power Company, told Al Jazeera.

The representative did not turn up and the fire safety system could not be fixed, Yadav told Al Jazeera.

“If the water hose had worked, then this person I saw standing in front of me would definitely have been saved,” head constable Singh said, referring to Kanchan Arora.

Yadav says that he told the police about the fire safety system not working.

A questionable chargesheet

Baba Sahab with his grandmother Kamal Kumar, 91, who died in a fire at Antara Care Home for Seniors in Delhi, India
In this old picture, taken at their home, Baba Sahab is standing behind his grandmother Kamal Kumar, 91, who died in the fire at Antara Care Home for Seniors on January 1, 2023 [Photo courtesy Baba Sahab]

Kamal Kumar’s grandson, Baba Sahab, told the police that he had celebrated New Year’s with his grandmother at Antara. He bought her clothes worth 80,000 rupees ($960), decorated her room with balloons and Happy New Year banners and lit candles.

That night, 13 Antara staff were on duty to take care of the 15 patients.

By the time Baba left at 2am, at least five Antara staff members had been to Kumar’s room and seen the lit candles, including a night-duty nurse who went to the room twice – at 10pm and at 2am – to give Kumar her medicines.

After a four-month-long investigation, the police submitted an 840-page final report along with the chargesheet to a court in April. A total of 54 witnesses including the investigating officer and Yadav were listed in it. But Yadav’s statement about the malfunctioning fire safety system has not been included.

Head constable Singh has been recommended by his seniors for an award for saving lives. But Singh is not among the 54 witnesses and his account of the water hoses not working has also not been included in the chargesheet.

Police have named just one accused, Baba Sahab, for causing death by negligence, a charge that carries a maximum jail sentence of two years.

Antara has maintained since the day of the fire that everything was in order and has submitted documentary proof of licences and permissions it had.

Al Jazeera reached out to Antara’s CEO and Managing Director Rajit Mehta as well as its executive chairperson Tara Singh Vachani with 25 questions, including why Antara did not inform the police that its fire safety system was not working.

In a statement, the company said: “Since the relevant court of law is now seized of the matter and the matter is sub-judice, it will not be appropriate for us or anyone else to make any comment on the merits of the incident.”

In February, about 50 days after their mother died in the fire, the Aroras filed a writ petition in the Delhi High Court seeking an “unbiased” and thorough probe into how and why their mother was burned alive in a facility that repeatedly promised 24/7 medical care, safety and security in all its interactions and marketing material.

In early September, they filed a "protest petition" in the trial court where the case State vs Baba Sahab is being heard, asking the court to look into Antara management’s negligence that led to their mother’s death. They are seeking to ensure that the investigation is fair and neutral, and have asked the court to “summon, try and punish” members of Antara management, including its founder, Tara Singh. The police is contesting the petition.

“Mothers are sacred … And we are losers whichever way you look at it. There is nothing for us to win … I am doing this just so my mother’s life is respected. She died in Antara’s care … [but] Antara has shown no responsibility or accountability … They are a big, powerful family who know the system,” Vineet told Al Jazeera.

“Beyond this incident, there are many bigger questions that need to be answered – about regulation for elder care homes and whether people like this should even be allowed to run this business,” he added.

Antara and the length of an average index finger

Kamal Kumar (left) and Kanchan Arora (right)
Kamal Kumar (left) and Kanchan Arora (right) both of whom died in the fire at Antara Care Home for Seniors on January 1, 2023 [Photos courtesy Baba Sahab and Vineet Arora]

Analjit Singh, 69, the founder and chairman of Max Group, a $4bn business conglomerate, is a suave, respected businessman who is often referred to as a “serial investor”.

He has been at the helm of several successful joint ventures – including New York Life Insurance, UK’s Bupa Plc, Motorola and Lockheed Martin – and until 2019, ran one of India’s leading hospital chains, Max, which he founded.

Though Singh is in the midst of a contested legal battle with his wife who alleges he is having an “affair” and is unfit to lead the business, he remains the director of Max India group, which now has interests in life insurance, real estate and elder care.

Singh did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment but has been quoted in news reports saying that the allegations are “downright untruthful”.

Antara is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Max India.

"We want to be the most loved and admired brand for senior care in the market," Tara, Singh’s youngest daughter, has said in multiple interviews and often speaks of "seva bhav" [passion for service] while linking it to her faith, Sikhism.

Antara – a portmanteau of the father and daughter's names – draws its reputation and brand heft from Singh and Max Hospitals.

A market leader in the elder care sector, it has at least three businesses catering to this field: Antara Assisted Care Services Limited under which comes the care home where the fire broke out, as well as Antara Senior Living and its subsidiary Antara Purukul Senior Living Ltd. Antara Assisted Care reported revenues of 164 million rupees ($2m) in financial year ending March 2023, down marginally from the year before, even as expenses ballooned from 321 million rupees ($4.6m) to 400 million rupees ($5.3m).

In March 2020 Antara acquired a guest house on rent in Delhi’s posh Greater Kailash locality to launch its Care Home for Seniors.

There are no rules or regulations in India for elder care homes and they can operate from buildings registered as guest houses, hostels or nursing homes.

But Delhi fire safety rules do require that all guest houses above 12 metres (39 feet) in height have a Fire Safety Certificate which is issued after an inspection of the building’s fire safety system. The fire safety system must include an automatic fire detection and alarm system, a smoke management system on all floors, a public address system for organised evacuation and a water pump that is connected to hoses and sprinklers and starts automatically.

When Antara signed the rent lease, the guest house, the height of which was 14.93 metres (about 48.9 feet), did not have a Fire Safety Certificate and its fire alarm system was not working. [See PDF.]

Instead of seeking a Fire Safety Certificate after ensuring all equipment was in order, Antara submitted an application to the municipal authorities for a change in the building use – from a guest house to a "poly-clinic and hostel" for which the requirement to have a Fire Safety Certificate kicks in only if the building is more than 15 metres (about 49.2 feet) in height.

Antara’s building was 7cm short (about 0.23 feet) of 15 metres, the average length of an index finger.

Among the several documents included in the police’s final report submitted to the court along with the chargesheet is a signed letter by Delhi fire chief Atul Garg addressed to the municipal authority. Dated January 13, 2021, it is what is called a No Objection Certificate (NOC). It states that since Antara’s guest house is “proposed” to be used as a hostel and is less than 15 metres in height, it does not require a fire safety certificate.

Al Jazeera asked Garg why he had issued the NOC for a building that was, at that time, registered as a guest house, instead of asking that all fire safety requirements be fulfilled. He declined to answer.

“People who live in senior care homes are the most vulnerable ... [so] one has to ensure that there are enough safeguards and infrastructure standards around service, around people, around governance ... It's a very tricky situation and unless people with high scruples are running [elder care facilities] with more than just a monetary motive, it's so difficult,” Samarth Eldercare’s Gupta said.

‘Liability cannot be on the kid alone’

LEFT: View of Room 302 at Antara Care Home for Seniors. RIGHT: The air conditioning unit in Room 301 of Antara Care Home for Seniors in Delhi, India where Kanchan Arora was staying
LEFT: View of Kamal Kumar's room, 302, at Antara Care Home for Seniors. RIGHT: The air conditioning unit in Room 301 of Antara Care Home for Seniors where Kanchan Arora was staying [Photo courtesy Vineet Arora]

Kamal Kumar, 91, who had been diagnosed with dementia and was bedridden for two years, liked wearing jewellery and listening to music. She would watch TV until very late at night. She was divorced, her only daughter had passed away and her 33-year-old grandson, Varenydhishakt Prdhiesubhaag, aka Baba Sahab who called her “bhalu”, Hindi for bear, took care of her.

When Baba admitted her to Antara Care home in April 2022, he had also engaged two Antara staff – a nurse and a caretaker – to look after her during the day and was paying, on average, 300,000 rupees ($3,605) per month.

Separately, Baba had also arranged for a night attendant from Max Hospital’s Max @ Home service.

On the evening of December 31, as Baba, his helpers and night attendant Srishti decorated room 302 with candles, balloons and banners, Kamal lay propped up on her hospital bed watching Kaun Banega Crorepati?, the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? anchored by Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan, on the wall-mounted TV.

At about 2am, Baba left Antara, leaving Kamal in the care of Antara’s staff and Srishti the night attendant.

In her statement to the police on January 1, Srishti said that at 4:30am, she was in the bathroom when she heard something bursting. When she came out, the wall-mounted TV cabinet was on fire. She reportedly called out to Kamal Kumar, who woke up and, seeing the smoke and fire in the room, started screaming.

Srishti said she tried to douse the fire but could not. So she went downstairs to get help. When she returned with other staff, she said the flames had reached the corridor and no one could enter Kamal’s room.

From the staircase, Srishti told the police, she saw Kanchan Arora struggling to get out of her room with a walking stick. “She was on fire,” she said.

Baba said it was a norm for him to light candles and diyas to celebrate festivals with his grandmother.

“I celebrated many festivals with my Nani [maternal grandmother] in that room. For Hindu and Sikh festivals, I would light diyas, and on Christian festivals, I would light candles,” Baba Sahab told Al Jazeera.

On December 24 and 25, too, Baba had decorated Kumar’s room with candles and balloons. The night attendant sent by Max @ Home on those nights had put out the candles after Baba left.

“But this new girl, Srishti, was irresponsible. There was a party downstairs and she must have gone there. She should have put out the candles before going,” Baba said.

Srishti told the police that Baba had told her not to extinguish the candles.

The 10-page registration form that Antara had made Baba sign while admitting Kumar prohibits any “dangerous, inflammable” material in the facility. Antara also has a provision to ask patients to leave if their behaviour poses a threat to other patients. But Baba was not prohibited from the premises even though on the morning of December 26, Antara's housekeeping staff reportedly scraped off “one to two kilos of wax from the floor” and complained to the centre head, Keshav Raj.

“If this psychopath [Baba] had been going there and burning candles, lock, stock and barrel, then it was the incumbent duty of the elder care home administration not to permit him to come and do this bullshit. If there is a precedence of this sort, then liability cannot be on the kid alone. Liability gets transferred to those people also who are in charge,” Tanveer Ahmed Mir, a leading criminal defence lawyer in Delhi who is not involved in this case, told Al Jazeera.

The police, he said, have to identify people in charge of specific tasks and establish "culpable negligence on part of the entity and their personnel".

Not charging pinpointed hospital administration personnel is "a tactical blunder", he said.

Al Jazeera made several attempts to meet and speak with the case’s investigating officer, sub-inspector Vishal Tiwari, and sent Chandan Chowdhary, the deputy commissioner of police in charge of south Delhi, 17 questions, including asking her to comment on allegations of the investigation being influenced. Despite several reminders, neither Tiwari nor Chowdhary responded.

Police investigation

“I am being made a scapegoat,” Baba Sahab told Al Jazeera.

His statement to the police, Baba Sahab said, was a “reply” to a specific question put to him by the investigating officer: “Why did I light candles in Antara’s Room 302 on December 31 and why did I leave the lit candles?"

“I would often leave my Nani late at night, around 12 midnight or 1am, and no Antara staff would be there at the nursing station on the third floor. All the nurses would be on the first floor. The only person I would meet on my way back home would be the guard on the ground floor,” he said.

The police investigation’s singular focus has been on Baba lighting candles and not on how the fire spread and killed two elderly women at a facility that promised 24/7 care and had an emergency nurse calling bell in every room as well as security cameras on each floor.

In the charge sheet, the police have included the statement of the shopkeeper from whom Baba bought the candles, but the police have not questioned Antara management about the facility violating its own rules and repeatedly allowing candles and diyas to be lit in a patient’s room.

The police have attached documents submitted by Antara and concluded that the “building had all fire and life safety measures”.

In their final report the police have not included Sun Power's Yadav's claim that Antara's fire safety system was not working. They have also not verified if the Antara staff were indeed trained on what to do in case of a fire.

Two Antara staff members, one of whom was present on the day of the fire, told Al Jazeera that they had not received any hands-on fire training. Their names are being withheld to protect their identity.

Police say they could not find a single witness in the busy neighbourhood to determine the time the fire started. They have put down the time as 4am even though that contradicts the time given by Srishti, Kamal Kumar’s night attendant, allegedly the only witness to the fire starting, which was a few minutes after 4:30am.

Statements of the 13 patients who survived the fire that night have not been included in the charge sheet because the police claim they did not have any information about the cause of the fire.

But the statements of Antara’s 23 staff, including those who were not on duty that night, have been included. They all say the same thing over and over – that Baba Sahab was rude, he would not allow any staff to enter Room 302 while he was with his grandmother, that he had lit candles in the room on Christmas and on December 31 and that the fire started because of him. There is a stunning similarity of words, phrases and even adjectives in their statements.

“This points to a suspicion that it is a sculpted and scripted investigation to shield somebody and pin the liability on somebody else,” criminal lawyer Mir told Al Jazeera.

The police’s investigation, in fact, does not establish the whereabouts of Antara’s staff between 2am, when Baba left, and 4:30am, when the fire allegedly started.

There are glaring gaps and contradictions in the final report that the police have submitted in court. [See PDF.]

“[Security camera] footage itself is evidence. See CCTV to say whether it proves negligence or not. The chargesheet should say this is what CCTV footage shows,” Mir said.

Last month the police informed the court that as per CCTV footage, Kamal Kumar's night attendant Srishti can be seen running downstairs at 4.51am. There's no mention of what else is there on the footage.

No regulation

Usually in India, tragedies trigger action. But after the blaze at Antara claimed the lives of two elderly women, HelpAge India’s Cherian said there has been no discussion, no meetings in the ministry for social justice and empowerment (MoSJE) on the fire incident or fire safety measures at elder care facilities.

In 2019, the government introduced a bill in parliament to amend the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens law. Its main thrust was on widening the definition of family – to include step and adopted children and in-laws – and removing the per month cap of 10,000 rupees ($120) on the maintenance amount that elders can legally demand.

The bill also set out minimum safety and service standards for private care homes for elders and gave legal imperative to the appointment of a regulatory authority to register and monitor them.

According to a news report, after the bill was tabled, a presentation in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) focused on the potential rise in litigations this amendment would lead to on maintenance payments and who was eligible for them, in turn disrupting families. This reportedly led to a rethink and the bill has not been taken up since.

“'Till a regulatory mechanism is put in place through the amendment bill, there is nothing we can do. We have no authority,” a MoSJE official, who declined to be named, told Al Jazeera.

The bill, the official said, is back in draft form and is being tweaked to include recommendations and address litigation concerns, but declined to share specifics.

“We are pushing it and are hoping the bill comes up in Parliament’s December session,” the official said but admitted that was unlikely as it still required inputs from and the approval of various ministries and departments as well as the PMO.

“Elderly are the lowest priority for the government of India,” Cherian told Al Jazeera. The reason, he says, is the thinking among politicians and bureaucrats that in India "we have a great culture, our culture respects the elderly".

'A termite in their quest for growth'

Kamal Kumar was 152cm (about 5 feet) tall but what was sent for postmortem on January 1 was just 80cm, the height of an average two-year-old girl. Her legs had burned to ash. Of the 14 gold bangles she was wearing, five had melted and her postmortem report recorded that parts of her heart were “cooked meat-like”.

But Kamal Kumar’s death has gone unmourned. Her grandson, the only surviving family member, is accused in the fire incident and faces a jail term. Until July he was also fighting a court case over her property with her nephews.

“My uncle had filed an application that I intentionally tried to, you know, do my grandmother in ... Which is really ridiculous. I can just say two words for it – balderdash hokum,” Baba said. The tussle over the 330 million rupees ($3.9m) property is now resolved and Baba said with palpable relief that his uncle is no longer pursuing the complaint.

But the grief of Kanchan Arora’s children refuses to settle. Her youngest daughter Mandakini's sorrow flows out continuously in tears and questions, and Vineet has busied himself in looking at technicalities – building laws and licences – in a determined pursuit to get answers and justice. Together, the siblings have launched a website, WhatIfItWasYourMother.org, as a public resource for all case-related information.

“Rajit Mehta, Antara’s CEO, has gone on record to say that they want to invest $36m in expanding their business. How much does it cost to have an attendant on site as you promised in your brochures that you will have?” Vineet said, and added, "My personal mission is to become a termite in their quest for growth.”

The trial into the fire incident and deaths as well as the Aroras’ petitions demanding an investigation that is fair and free from influence are being heard in different courts and are ongoing. Last month police informed the court that they may file a supplementary chargesheet in the case if new facts come to light.

Source: Al Jazeera