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Kolkata can only wait for disasters to strike

kolkata Updated: Feb 28, 2013 13:57 IST
Ravik Bhattacharya

As 19 charred bodies piled up at the Calcutta Medical College and Hospital less than a couple of kilometres away from the cramped Surya Sen Market where a fire broke out early on Thursday, it was time for yet another ‘committee’ to probe the tragedy.

Another fire, another row of bodies and another committee formed — even as one building after another goes up in flames. Be it Stephen Court or the AMRI disaster, the government’s response has been to form committes go into the tragedies and suggest remedies. Only to be forgotten till another disaster strikes.

Hours after the fire ravaged Surya Sen Market, CM Mamata Banerjee announced over a hand-held microphone at the site: “Kolkata Police, KMC and the fire department will probe the cause. I want a report within three days.”

“We’re trying our best. This particular building didn’t adhere to fire safety norms and had illegal constructions put up during Left rule,” Javed Khan, fire services minister, said. “After the AMRI fire incident, we initiated a survey of all the markets, but, unfortunately, couldn’t complete it,”

It was on March 23, 2010, that a fire at Stephen Court in Park Street killed 43 men, women and children. The then Left Front government promptly set up an 11-member inquiry committee under SN Roy, former chief secretary. The recommendations are gathering dust.

On December 9 last year, 93 people were killed in a fire at AMRI hospital in Dhakuria. This time, it was the ‘Maa, Mati, Manush’ government which set up a probe committee. Then, a 5-member ‘fire safety committee’ was set up, headed by DP Biswas, ADG (Fire Services). Another committee, headed by chief secretary Samar Ghosh, was set up three days after the incident.

Thereafter, another 11-member committee, the “Rules Reframing Committee”, chaired by Nihar Ranjan Banerjee, one of the then secretaries, Fire Services Department, was set up.

The committees, including that under DP Biswas, which inspected over 40 hospital and business establishments, submitted their recommendations. These recommendations are yet to be implemented.

Meanwhile, markets, hospitals, business establishments and workshops remain tinderboxes, with cramped illegal constructions and a complete disregard for any form of fire safety mechanism.

“We found out that, apart from many markets, buildings and hospitals in the city, even Writers’ Buildings isn’t safe. There are thousands of traders without a proper trade licence. We made several recommendations. One of them is making licences for LPG use mandatory.

The others are holding regular mock fire drills and properly displaying floor numbers and fire safety arrangements. Appointment of fire safety officers at business establishments, to be trained by the fire department, and using concealed wiring are yet others,” a member of one committee said.

A majority of our markets, besides government hospitals, do not have adequate fire safety arrangements. A walk around the markets, including those at Burrabazar, Chandni Chowk and Kidderpore, besides Bidhan Market and Hogg Market, reveal loosely hanging electrical wires, congested shops and a total absence of fire safety arrangements. Calcutta Medical College and Hospital, SSKM Hospital and Nilratan Sarkar Medical College and Hospital also fall far behind the stipulated fire safety standards.

“Many markets and business establishments don’t have a ‘noobjection certificate’ from us. Many have got provisional ones, which are not renewed. There are no proper escape routes, or water sources. Anything can happen any day,” a fire department official said.

In various localities, hundreds of tanneries, workshops and small factories which deal with combustible chemicals and materials, do not have any fire safety arrangements.