On January 13, 2008, Nandaram Market, the biggest wholesale market in Burrabazar, Kolkata was engulfed by a blazing inferno. More than 2500 shops and offices were razed to the ground.
On March 23, 2010, a 150 year-old multi storied building in Park Street, Stephen House, housing over 50 offices and numerous residences was gutted by a devastating fire that ultimately killed 43 people.
On December 10, 2011, another devastating fire swept through the posh AMRI hospital. The death toll was 90. The cause of the fire was assumed to be total negligence of fire safety laws.
On March 22, 2012, Hatibagan Market was destroyed by more than 80% by a massive fire and took 32 fire engines to bring the blaze completely under control. It was one of the most congested markets in north Kolkata, housing more than 1000 shops and godowns.
On February 27, 2013, 19 people were killed and more than 20 people were injured when a massive fire engulfed the six storied Surya Sen Market in the Sealdah area of Kolkata.
The few examples of fire hazards cited above is merely to raise the eventual question – why a modern metropolitan city like Kolkata is so prone to fire hazards? A close analysis of the fire hazard cases will provide the answers.
Firstly, the corruption and bribery in our system makes it possible to store highly inflammable and explosive materials in godowns and storage areas without any kind of fire safety measures. The AMRI hospital case is an ideal example where oxygen cylinders were stored in the basement area with only one point of exit and entry. Evidently the government medical inspection board had turned a blind eye till the hazard happened.
Secondly, it seems that fire safety measures are an alien concept to the businessmen and office holders in places like the Nandaram and the Surya Sen markets. There are no proper exits let alone fire exits and fire escapes. Modern equipment like smoke detectors and sprinklers are obviously out of question! The government of West Bengal, as usual, feigns ignorance when such business hubs are concerned.
Thirdly, the electrical connections and the distribution points in buildings such as the Stephen House are essentially unscientific, illegal, and dangerous often dating back to the British era followed by decades of hooking and illegal connections. The Stephen House case is an ideal example where criss-crossing open wires shorted and started an electrical fire. Now the state electricity board will naturally refuse any knowledge of such illegal and dangerous connections.
And lastly, our fire department needs to be revamped immediately by the government. Yes, we have quaint red painted fire engines that still tinkle a bell to clear the traffic (instead of wailing sirens) in the old English style. But how effective are they? The hydraulic ladders and swivel platforms often get stuck. Few people have the knowledge that the firefighting team in the Stephen House case was the same team that saved innumerable lives by crawling under the debris and rubble heap when the infamous promoter Pradip Kundalia’s multistory building collapsed killing 11 people in 1989. However, years of inactivity have lulled them into a state of slowness. Maybe that’s why they could not perform with the same zeal and efficiency in the Stephen House incident like they did 24 years ago when the firefighters were in their twenties and at the peak of their performance.
To conclude, it is our plea to the government to look into the situation closely and take proper steps so that Kolkata remains a City of Joy and does not turn into a box of incendiaries.
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