SARBAJIT PARIDA’S parents still remember October of 2017, the last time they saw their only son. That’s when Sarbajit left his hometown in Odisha’s coastal district of Balasore to “do something” in Mumbai, the 23-year-old’s city of dreams. Two months later, his cousin brought his body back home. Of the 14 who died in the Kamala Mills fire on December 29 last year, Sarbajit was the only staffer.
Among the youngest victims, he left behind parents who were forced to return to work after they lost the family’s sole bread-winner. The family said they were promised compensation by representatives of 1Above restaurant where Sarbajit worked, but one year later, the wait continues. Eventually, father Samrendra Parida (53), who used to be a TV mechanic, resumed work. His wife Vasanti (46) also works as a labourer for 10 to 15 days a month.
In 2017, after he finished an industrial training course in Indore, Sarbajit had applied to various restaurants in Mumbai. “We wanted him to work here in Odisha, but he said there were no opportunities here. He wanted to earn in Mumbai for a while, do something there,” Samrendra told The Indian Express over phone.
Earlier, Sarbajit would ride 20 km on his bicycle to college to pursue a hotel management course in Balasore. He had funded his own educ-ation, giving tuitions and taking part-time jobs. His former Mumbai roommate, Sanjeev Patra, said he would often be worried about his parents living alone in Odisha. “They have an elder daughter who is married. For them, everything revolved around their son,” Patra said.
Cousin Prakash Nayak, who works at a retail store in Bandra, helped Sarbajit when he first moved to Mumbai, finding him rented accommodation. Sarbajit shared a room with four boys, paying a rent of Rs 2,000 per month. In October 2017, he started working as a steward with 1Above in Kamala Mills, where he coordinated between patrons and waiters, earning Rs 12,000 per month. His colleagues fondly called him ‘Captain’. “He was always helpful. I believe he must have learnt his duties towards guests during his hotel management course. That might be why he didn’t rush out while all the other employees did,” Nayak said.
Sarbajit’s body was found in a washroom with that of a guest an hour-and-a-half after the fire broke out in the wee hours on December 29. The autopsy showed he died due to smoke inhalation, with only a few non-fatal burns on the body. Following his death, 1Above paid Rs 50,000 to transport the body to Nilagiri. “The HR department said that once the owners came out of jail, they will compensate the family. But we didn’t get anything,” Nayak alleged.
On December 14, the Supreme Court granted bail to 1Above owners Kripesh and Jigar Sanghvi, along with Mojo Bistro’s co-owner Yug Pathak. Sarbajit’s family says nobody from the restaurant has approached them yet.
In May, the Bombay High Court granted bail to Kamala Mills compound owners Ravi Bhandari and Ramesh Govani, who were charged with flouting construction norms. Advocate Ankit Jain, who represents the Sanghvi brothers, said: “There has been no negligence on part of the owners. Therefore, they are not liable to pay compensation.” Advocate Shyam Diwani, representing Govani, said: “The Kamala Mills owners did not assure that any compensation will be paid in this case.”
An inquiry by the BMC found that the fire was sparked by flying embers from coals being used to serve hookahs on the open terrace of Mojo’s Bistro. The fire then spread to the adjacent 1Above. The blocked exit, a violation of fire safety norms, forced patrons to rush to washrooms where most died due to suffocation.
“Other employees told me that they asked Sarbajit to rush out of the washroom. We don’t know whether he ran towards the washroom because of a guest or because he could not decide which way to go,” Nayak said.