In 1982, 12-year-old Bipin Ganatra lost his elder brother after he succumbed to burn injuries he received in a fire. Since then Ganatra has been on a mission: save as many lives as possible from fire. As West Bengal’s unofficial firefighter, Ganatra will receive a India’s fourth highest civilian award, the Padma Shri, from the President for his services. Ganatra lives in a small house on 27, Devendra Mullick Street, Kolkata. He sleeps on the floor and tracks the news on the TV. He put up a shelf to keep the many awards he has started to receive after he started to
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He recalls the incident that spurred him to save lives during fires. Back then he used to stay in Bhawanipure area of the city. His brother was working on a motorcycle and a spark ignited the fuel he was handling.
“He was admitted in the hospital for over a month and then succumbed to his injuries. Now I see my brother in every single person who is stuck in fire. The moment I save someone or control fire I feel like once again I won a game over fire,” he said. Since then, he has been following the sound of the siren.
Ganatra originally belonged to Gujarat but has spent most of his life in West Bengal. Despite his vast experience in fighting fire, he has never wanted to be a firefighter. “I earn about Rs 2,500 a month working as an electrician. Officials in the fire department know me by name. They treat me like I am a part of the team. I was never interested in getting a job in the fire department because then it would have become a job for me, I want to play with fire till my last breath with the same zeal,” said Ganatra.
He doesn’t travel with the firefighters to the spot of the incident. Instead, he makes it by taxi or any other mode of transport available to him. He doesn’t charge for his service either.
“In 1994, the fire department gave me a uniform and identity card after which it became easier for me to help people,” he said.
Did the unofficial firefighter ever get into a spot of trouble where he thought he wouldn’t make it out alive? “I was rescued from a room where I was trapped for an hour in the Strand Warehouse a few years ago. For a moment I thought that it was my last fire rescue mission but I was saved. I never married and hence don’t have much to lose,” he said.
The best memory he has is that of saving a pregnant woman. “She was trapped on the fifth floor of a building on 56, Canning Street. I scaled the walls to the first floor. She was surrounded by fire and was too nervous to come out. I managed to bring her down. She was in tears and said that if she is blessed with a son she would name him after me. I was touched,” he smiled.
On Friday, Bipin missed a call from Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani. “I had kept my mobile somewhere and later came to know that chief minister of Gujarat had called me,” he said. Happy with this new recognition, Ganatra believes it may inspire others to do well in life.
“I am getting a lot of attention, but I believe that it has never been in my mind to win an award for my services. I came to know through media that I was nominated. Jumping into fire, saving lives and then going back home just to have a sound sleep is what gives me inner peace,” said Ganatra. This year, four persons from West Bengal will receive the Padma awards.