In the hot seat,why India’s only Fire Minister isn’t sweating

He may be India’s only fire minister,but Pratim Chatterjee is a man of many other talents,not the least being his ability to reinvent himself.

Written by Sabyasachi Bandopadhyay | Kolkata | Published: March 28, 2010 1:32:34 am

He may be India’s only fire minister,but Pratim Chatterjee is a man of many other talents,not the least being his ability to reinvent himself. So three days into what may be the worst period of his 14-year tenure as West Bengal’s Fire Minister,Chatterjee isn’t sweating.

As his Fire Department drew flak for complete lack of preparedness in handling the Stephen Court building blaze — in which the toll had climbed to 33 by Saturday,making it Kolkata’s worst fire tragedy in recent times — he reacted with indignation to calls for his resignation. “Why should I resign?” he asked. “Should I have gone to Stephen Court with a shovel?”

Later,in the Assembly,a horrified CPM watched as their minister casually got up and started walking towards the exit as Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee rose to make a statement on the Stephen Court tragedy. Party MLA and floor manager Robin Mondal had to rush to Chatterjee and literally drag him back to his seat by his hand. He shrugged that he didn’t know the Chief Minister was going to talk about the fire.

Chatterjee may derive his confidence from the fact that he has held the portfolio since 1996 despite a far from illustrious record. Nepotism,lack of professionalism and indiscipline are just some of the charges levelled at the Fire Department,which is otherwise rich in funds. While last year the department had a budget of Rs 26 crore,for 2010-11,the budget is up to Rs 32 crore. There is more money coming as part of Central funds.

But a part of the 66-year-old’s bravado,his detractors mumble,could also do with the licensed revolver he carries in his briefcase — the only Left Front minister to flaunt a gun. “It’s for my personal security,” the Fire Minister says.

According to him,he got into the habit after becoming a gemologist in the late ‘60s. Chatterjee claims to have studied the art of identifying diamonds in Amsterdam and subsequently worked with some top international companies dealing in precious stones across Europe. “I used to have various kinds of diamonds and stones for testing with me. I needed security,” he says.

After returning to India,Chatterjee — who earlier did mechanical engineering from Shibpur Bengal Engineering College — worked in then Bombay with diamond traders. Even as he eventually drifted into politics,Chatterjee also built a parallel career in the Bengali film industry Tollygunj. An established actor,he is currently mulling several new offers,including one by superstar Shah Rukh Khan. The clever Kolkata Knight Riders owner made the offer recently after Chatterjee refused to clear a controversial gallery for an IPL match,to seat Khan and his fans. The mollified minister quickly acquiesced,much to the chagrin of his detractors. However,the man belonging to a rich zamindar family of Tarakeshwar,known for his love for good food,spotless white clothes and branded shoes,got used to having his way long back.

In 1977,when the Left Front government came to power in the state,the fire portfolio fell under the Urban Development and Municipal Affairs Ministry,held by the CPM. The Marxist Forward Bloc (MFB) happened to be one of the smallest LF constituents with just two MLAs. One of them,Ram Chatterjee,was very close to Jyoti Basu and got a berth as Civil Defence minister.

After Ram Chatterjee’s death in 1986,the MFB did not have a ministry for 10 years. Then in 1996 Pratim Chatterjee became an MLA from Tarakeshwar and demanded a portfolio. He was made Minister of State for Fire under the Urban Development portfolio held by Ashok Bhattacharya. But Chatterjee kept demanding Independent charge,and got it. “A separate portfolio was created to please an LF partner and not for any administrative convenience,“ admits Bhattacharya.

It has been 14 years,and Bhattacharya remains the Urban Development Minister and Chatterjee retains his Fire.

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