Sundeep Bhutoria

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ess bee

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Friday, March 26, 2010

SPark Street!

Returned to Kolkata from London and on my way back home crossed ParkStreet and The Stephen House  (picture) which bore the brunt of yet another major fire on Wednesday that Kolkata has witnessed in recent years. The high death toll has left deep scars in the psyche of all Kolkatans. There is no doubt the city has a chronic fire problem. It is a singed city.
While on my flight back to Kolkata from Delhi the Chief Minister of Mizoram Pu Lalthanhawla and Sharmila Tagore discussed with me about the fire on Park Street. We were all shocked by the death toll. Going by the spate of recent events, Kolkata, it seems, is increasingly becoming a fire-proned city, a dubious distinction borne by major conflagrations like the ones at Nandaram Market, Topsia, McDonald’s, New Market, Ultadanga and numerous other such outbreaks.
As we hunt for the villain, I am not sure who can be held responsible for these tragedies – Is it the unscrupulous property owners, rickety infrastructure, corrupt officials, inept administration, zero disaster management preparedness or the callous citizens? Though fingers are pointed at the inept fire department personnel but I have seen them in action during the Nandaram Market fire and how bravely they did their jobs putting their lives at stake.
Illegal construction and unscrupulous property owners are allegedly responsible for such mishaps in the city. If that is so – I wonder how does the Kolkata Corporation, instead of taking stringent action, gives legal sanction to such projects.
Tenants in many of the city’s old buildings still continue to pay paltry sums as rent on property valuations that goes back to the days of the Raj. What maintenance and upkeep of property can one expect with rents as low as Rs 20 to Rs 100 per month. I wonder what stops the government from correcting this imbalance.
Kolkata boasts of many heritage properties. Most of these buildings have wooden staircases, defunct fire escapes and the frightening cobwebs-like electrical and cable wires which, besides being an eyesore, is also life threatening. Even the building I stay in is no different.
The Kolkata Commissioner of Police, Sri Gautam Mohan Chakraborty, on a recent visit to my house cautioned me of how unsafe the building’s electrical wires were. I told him that since I was a co-owner I could not change things on my own. My repeated requests have fallen on deaf ears and my concerns laughed off.
I think that most us are not serious about fire protection or else how can one explain the fact that despite series of outbreaks, in fact three fires within 50 sq metres of The Stephen House over a period (Alliance Francais and McDonald’s) have failed to stir up any administrative action. The Kolkata Fire Station headquarters is only a few stretches away from Park Street and yet so many lives were lost. I shudder to think of the fate of the residents of so many high rises that are no so close to the city’s fire-fighting establishment.
Earlier this month on the 5th of March there was fire in Topsia that gutted 250 hutments and injured three persons. This was again preceded by another incident in which a fire raged through the sprawling Basanti colony area in Ultadanga adjacent to the railway tracks. The Rajasthan Foundation, thanks Sri H M Bangur, who contributed Rs 20 lakh for the Mayor’s Relief Fund for redevelopment of the area and rehabilitating the victims whose houses were burnt to a frazzle. But the fact is that whenever there is a fire outbreak we take some relief measures but the crux of the problem remains un-addressed.
I pray for the souls of the victims who died in the mishap and hope such tragedies are averted in future. Someone referred to Park Street as `SPark Street’ – I know Park Street will never be the same again.
-ess bee

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