On September 16, Harish Agarwal, a shopowner at Bagri market in Kolkata, saw the dreams of many of his friends turn to ashes. The market witnessed one of the biggest blazes of the year, with 207 of its 957 shops gutted, following which authorities closed off the building until its structural safety could be ensured.
A little more than three months later, the affected shopkeepers say no progress seems to have been made. “The police and the civic authorities have examined the building a number of times but have not yet allowed us to open our shops. The uncertainty over the market’s future is making us suffer every day,” said Harish.
With no word on when the market would be opened again, thousands of people, who lost their businesses, are trying to get their lives on track by making a living from makeshift units set up in the narrow congested lane outside the market. Kaushal, a BCom student, who never had to help his father at their tea stall before, now assists him to run his makeshift stall on the roadside after their shop was closed down following the fire.
“Our shop wasn’t affected by the fire but it’s part of the market, hence it’s also closed. My father is busy with the paper work and so I run the business here. We do only 30 per cent of the business we used to do earlier. We cannot completely shut the business because we have a few employees depending on us,” he said. Following the blaze, a team from IIT Roorkee had visited the site. They sought drawings of the building and a tilt report. After getting clearance from the engineers, those reports were submitted to IIT experts recently.
“They wanted a report to confirm if the building tilted in any direction due to the incident. The building engineers have found that there was no such effect on the structure. A tilt report has been submitted to the IIT Roorkee experts. After examining the building, engineers have said that it is safe,” said Asutosh Singh, President of the Bagri Market Central Kolkata Traders’ Welfare Association. Singh also had two shops and about 14 employees working for him.
“I have been helping my employees financially but I am not very sure how long I will be able to do so. There is no certainty when this market will reopen. If all the stakeholders jointly work without delaying it any further, there is a chance it could be opened next month or else it will continue to get delayed,” he added.
As per Singh following the instruction of the fire department, 60 per cent of work has been completed, while 40 per cent is still pending. As per sources, once the fire department examines the spot and issues a No Objection Certificate, the corporation will also give their clearance and CESC will also restore electricity in the market.
“We have no issue in supplying electricity. Once the other agencies like the fire and KMC give their nod, we will supply electricity,” a source in CESC told The Indian Express. A source from IIT Roorkee said that they were hired as a third-party by the government to submit a report on Bagree Market for which a team visited the spot in September and a report was submitted a day after. In the report, the experts had mentioned that it was important to examine a few documents related to the structure of the building.
“The reports we sought were submitted to us after two months. We examined them and further sought a few more important documents from the Bagree association through the KMC. We have given our suggestions. Now, it’s up to the corporation to take a call,” said a source. The incident once again brought into focus the poor fire safety arrangements at several major markets in the city. About 6 km from Bagree Market is Jadubabu’s Bazaar, which is also affected by poor fire safety arrangements. Not only are several buildings there in a bad condition, the place is so congested that it is difficult for fire engines to enter. Days after the Bagree incident, a minor fire was reported from the market which was luckily brought under control without much problem.
The fire at Nandaram market in Burrabazar in 2008 remains one of the biggest incidents. As per sources, most of the markets that lack fire safety arrangements are owned by private firms and therefore, the corporation’s job gets limited to sending recommendations to the owners to implement safety guidelines.
“Bagree market is not likely to open soon. It will take some time. They are yet to get a clearance from the fire department. Once they issue NOC, we will clear it from our side after which electricity supply will also be restored. This whole procedure is going to take time,” said Amiruddin, Mayor in Council (Market).
“Most private markets are found to be at fault. Our repeated reminders fall on deaf ears. These are old markets where wiring system is also decades old. Owners often ignore fire safety measures,” said Amiruddin. “We gave them recommendations. Once they give us compliance report assuring all work is done, we will carry out an inspection and then the next course of action will be decided,” DG Fire Jag Mohan told The Indian Express.
As per sources, the corporation is planning to bring in a policy change to ensure strict action against the owners who will be found at fault. “Any relaxation of building rules will only mean loopholes for further abuse and future catastrophes. The need is for a stringent regulation and stricter supervision,” a senior official from the fire department told The Indian Express. Though majority of the traders have been lobbying with the civic top brass for an NOC to reopen the market, the KMC and the fire department are taking its time before granting the permission on the ground that people’s lives cannot be risked.
“We cannot compromise with the safety measures. We have handed over the guidelines to the trader’s association. It has to be implemented across the market and not just the gutted portion. Once we are satisfied with the renovation, NOC will be given,” said a senior fire official.
Owners still at large
The Burrabazar police slapped criminal charges against Radha Bagree and her son Varun Raj Bagree, co-directors of Bagree Estates Private Limited and the company CEO Krishna Kumar Kothari. All the three have been booked under several sections of the West Bengal Fire Services Act 1950 and Section 436 IPC (causing mischief by fire). “No one has been arrested yet,” said a senior cop of Kolkata police.