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How we lost a slice of our natural history

Catch Team | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:51 IST

In an unprecedented fire, India's National Museum of Natural History was completely destroyed during the early hours of 26 April. The cause of the fire, which raged for at least 5 hours, is unknown, although there is speculation that it was caused by electrical equipment. The fire began on the top floor of the building, which houses the museum's administrative offices. The building is owned by industry lobby Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

Read: 160-million-yr-old dinosaur's fossil, old artefacts lost in Natural History Museum fire

FICCI's headquarters and KK Birla Auditorium next door had a narrow escape, as the fire did not spread.

"Luckily, no one was present inside the building when the incident occurred," FICCI said in a statement.

Photo: Arvind Yadav/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images

It's rare for an entire museum to be charred in a fire. The NMNH, which falls under the environment ministry, housed plant and animal specimens dating back to the Jurassic era. The museum was spread over three floors. It was opened on World Environment Day, 5 June 1978, six years after the then Indira Gandhi government finalised plans for it following the Stockholm UN Environment Summit in 1972.

Photo: Arvind Yadav/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images

According to a fire service official, it is likely that the the fire spread because of wood and formaldehyde, an inflammable chemical used in preserving biological specimen. Moreover, the building's fire safety system wasn't functioning. Even the water tank could be opened only a few hours into the operation with the help of fire service officials.

Six firemen were taken to a hospital after they spent several hours firefighting in the premises, and two are still in a critical condition.

Photo: Arvind Yadav/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The fire began at around 1:30 am, and was brought under control by around 7 AM. At 8:30 AM, environment, forest and climate change minister Prakash Javadekar arrived on the scene. In a statement to the press, he clarified that the ministry was "limited" as the building was not owned by the ministry and the premises were rented from FICCI.

Photo: Arvind Yadav/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Even around 1 PM, fire tenders continued to be dispatched as smoke could be seen coming from the top two floors.

Photo: Nihar Gokhale/ Catch News

"The Museum is a national treasure. The loss cannot be quantified," Javadekar tweeted in the morning.

He ordered a fire safety audit of all establishments across the country coming under his ministry, including 34 museums. The NMNH itself has four other museums, in Bhopal, Sawai Madhopur (Rajasthan), Mysore and Bhubaneshwar. In February, these four along with New Delhi drew nearly 45,000 visitors, according to the museum's website.

New museum at Pragati Maidan

In a statement in the evening, the ministry said that a new museum will come up behind Purana Qila near Pragati Maidan. The land has been acquired and a detailed concept plan is ready.

The ministry has been planning the new museum building from before, according to a 2015-16 action plan on its website. It had planned to issue tender for its construction by March 2016, although it couldn't manage to.

The process seems to be expedited now.

Also read: 5 reasons why the Natural History Museum fire is a man-made disaster

The next step, of changing the land use type, will be taken up on 27 April at a meeting of the Delhi Development Authority chaired by the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, the statement added.

The new building will come up at a cost of Rs 225 crore.

"In-principle approval of allocation of funds from NITI Aayog/Ministry of Finance will be undertaken by October 31, 2016. The tentative programme for completion of the project is February 28, 2017," the statement added.

Text by Nihar Gokhale

Photos curated by Priyata Brajabasi

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First published: 27 April 2016, 8:51 IST