A special committee, comprising ministers, police and bureaucrats, held a meeting at the state secretariat on Monday to take stock of the situation, even as firefighters continue their efforts to put out pocket fires in the 60-year-old Bagree market building in Central Kolkata. With Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in Germany, the meeting at Nabanna was presided over by state education minister Partha Chatterjee.
According to the preliminary probe report submitted by the police and the state fire department at the meeting, sprinklers inside the building were lying defunct. Despite housing hundreds of shops, the building had no ventilation. Even the toilet space and a part of the staircase were leased out to traders. Many of them were also found to have no licence. When this correspondent entered the building, he spotted a few fire extinguishers that had already expired in 2017. The water tanks were also empty. “We have been paying monthly maintenance for the upkeep of the building, but the owner never cared to set up a fire fighting system. She did not even pay a visit after the incident,” said Ankush Shaw, a toy trader.
Ashutosh Singh, president of Bagree Market Central Kolkata Traders’ Welfare Association, said that they will file a complaint against the owner for not taking steps to install fire fighting equipment. “The owners had charged money to get proper fire fighting arrangements in place. On two occasions, we had paid Rs 15 per square foot and Rs 25 per square foot for the purpose but nothing was done. We will lodge a police complaint against the owner.”
Radha Bagri, the owner of the building, however, could not be contacted for her comments. The fire that broke out in Central Kolkata’s Bagree market in the early hours of Sunday continued to smoulder in pockets a day after, with fire fighters saying it may take several hours to control the blaze. “It may take 48 or even 72 hours to control the fire. Apart from shops, there are godowns inside the building. We are trying our best,” said a senior fire service officer.
According to the police, the fire broke out at around 2.30 am on the first floor of the building on Sunday, and quickly spread to the floors above. As many as 30 fire tenders were rushed to the spot within half an hour, but the narrow lanes and mesh of overhead wires made it a difficult operation. The area was also enveloped in thick, black smoke.
“I cannot say how long it will take to douse the fire completely. It has spread to different parts of the building. Work is going on at a war footing. But one must understand that it is a difficult situation. There were plastic items, perfumes, deodorants, gas cylinders and other highly inflammable items. We have been telling them to install a proper fire fighting system. Had they listened to us, this would not have happened. Once the fire is completely doused, we will probe the matter and action will be taken accordingly,” said state fire minister Sovan Chatterjee on Monday.
The Chief Minister speaking to mediapersons in Germany said, “Even the bathroom area and staircases in the building were leased out. They had no proper arrangements (to fight fire). Such system (malpractices) has prevailed for years inside congested areas. This is unacceptable. Traders should understand.”
Meanwhile, those who were affected by the fire staged a protest when urban development minister Firhad Hakim visited the spot on Monday. They raised questions at the time being taken to control the fire and urged the government to pull up its sock. “Our first priority is to control the fire. Forensics team will then be able to do its work. I will again take stock of the situation after a couple of days along with my officers. We will help the shop owners. I think a proper urban planning is needed for these markets. There were a lot of illegal structures inside the buildings and the godowns were full of inflammable materials,” said Firhad Hakim.
Pharma traders hit
The pharmaceutical traders are the worst hit in the fire incident. With the power supply to the area temporarily cut off, adjacent markets too have been shut. The pharma hub, which comprises the Bagree market, nearby Mehta building, Bhagwandas and Gandhi markets, supply goods to not only West Bengal but North East states.
“There are around 300 pharma traders in Bagree and over 1,000 in Mehta building. Bhagwandas and Gandhi markets have 60 and 30 respectively. With the fire in Bagree market yet to be doused, other markets could not be opened,” said Pranab Kumar Chattopadhyay, state committee member of the Pharmaceutical Traders’ Welfare Association of Bengal.
“For the second day the markets have remained closed. In Bagree, besides medicines, all trade documents are gutted. Since there is no power supply in Mehta building, medicines that need refrigeration are likely to go bad. Though not immediately, but in the long run it will affect the retailers,” Chattopadhyay added.
“Many of the traders supply medicines to the hospitals. Some of us deal with emergency medicines. How will these be supplied? I could not open my shop for the second day. This will badly affect the business,” said R C Shaw, a pharmaceutical trader.