A fire in the dead of night. Trapped people asphyxiated in the smoke. Inadequate fire fighting measures in the building. Permits missing. It sounds like déjà vu in Kolkata. The fire at the Surya Sen Market in the busy Sealdaha area of the city is bringing back memories of the devastating AMRI hospital fire.
24 Ghonta says they have heard from fire department officials about the source of the fire. It started with a fire that broke out in an old refrigerator in a retired lawyer's office on the second floor. That set off a fire in the meter box on the ground floor and spread from there to all the circuits. That led to the fire. The only stroke of good luck - none of the 56 gas cylinders in the building, including 6 in a small hotel in the building, exploded. Otherwise the death toll would have been much higher.
However even before the smoke has cleared, the fire is already a political football in the city.
The Mayor of the city Shovan Chatterjee said that it was “not desirable” for markets to come up in such congested areas. The news channel ABP Ananda says though the fire brigade responded quickly with 26 engines the area was so congested it could not get to the back of the market where the main fire was raging.
Shikha Mitra, the elected representative in the area, who is at odds with the Trinamool leadership rushed back from Delhi to complain about her letter of complaint not having elicited a response from the Kolkata Corporation. "You cannot get a person's life back by giving money," she told the media. "The mother who has lost two sons has lost everything."
Javed Khan, the minister in charge of fire safety said he did not know anything about this and asked media if Mitra had shown them any proof of her letters.
Many of the shops had large amounts of plastic and paper which went up in flames swiftly. Bystanders said many of the bodies that had come out were severely burned suggesting that asphyxiation was not the only cause of death.
Eleven bodies have been identified and it includes people from as far afield as Jharkhand.
Javed Khan, told news channels that the market was an “unauthorized illegal market.” “Many such buildings have come up during the 34 years of the Left Front government,” he said.
He added that the Trinamool government had spent the last year and a half inspecting many schools, colleges, hospitals and made at least 100 arrests. They were ready to issue an FIR in the name of the owner of this market as well.
But when asked if he could guarantee such unauthorized buildings were not coming up under the Trinamool, the minister said quickly that was not under his purview. Asked if any notice had been given to this market, he said that was not his job, but the Calcutta Corporation’s.
The leader of the opposition Surya Kanta Mishra was quick to dismiss those charges. “We will ask for an independent inquiry,” he told media at the site. “This is not the time to go for blame game. If anyone has done that, they have done an irresponsible job.”
Meanwhile local business owners say they kept asking for fire safety steps. But were always told yes we will do it later, soon, a distraught businessowner told Kolkata TV.
The main fire was in mezzanine floor and that was where most people succumbed. It had its own staircase and that was blocked by the fire and people from the first floor could not come down.
After the fire at Stephen Court in 2010 and the AMRI fire in 2011, the questions about fire safety arise over and over again.
It's not that it comes as news to anymore that Kolkata's congested markets are fire hazards. Fire brigade personnel said what happened at Surya Sen was not surprising at all. It was a sitting duck. And it's not the only market in the city in this state.
R Plus channel showed markets with old neglected meter boxes, hanging electric wires, missing buckets of sand.
After every big fire, police get active but after a few months everything goes back to business as usual. So the question arises what lessons do we learn from each of these fires?
Does the administration really crackdown or will they only react after a fire breaks out. Surya Sen Market is not the only Jatugriha in the city.