Kolkata: From presiding over eight gaddis (traditional Marwari shops) in Nandaram Market, Shyamsundar Bihani has been reduced to doling out buttered bread and bananas to the army and fire brigade personnel trying to douse the flames that have ravaged the market and adjoining areas, off busy Brabourne Road, one of the main streets leading to Howrah Bridge.
“I’ve lost all I had,” says the 56-year-old Bihani, sounding remarkably composed as he goes about distributing the food among the grimy and exhausted firefighters, even as some of the younger lot hurl abuses at the men in khaki as well as members of the media. “They are angry with the fire brigade for not doing enough to douse the flames on Saturday night itself and delaying involving the army.”
Charred remains: Workers remove debris from around the building that caught fire?in the wee hours?of? Saturday. (Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint)
Bihani’s shops dealt in hosiery, cotton textiles and woollens. He estimates his losses to be between Rs15 lakh and Rs20 lakh.
Bihani’s equanimity is in marked contrast to most of his fellow shopkeepers.
Sunil Jain, 38, is livid with the state fire service. “Look at them, pot-bellied old men,” he spits out. “They’ve just been sitting around while our world goes up in flames.”
Jain, who had three shops in the 13-storeyed Nandaram market, admits he had stocked huge quantities of nylon in them.
Of the 2,500 affected traders in Nandaram market, its Kashiram wing or the adjoining tarpaulin shops in Tirpalpatti, practically no one had insured their goods.
“Each of these buildings is completely illegal,” says Gora Chand Mondol, the director general (buildings) at the city municipal corporation. “None of them had a sanctioned plan, completion certificate or fire licence,” he says, explaining the reluctance of insurance companies to insure the shops.
It is believed that the owners of Nandaram Market, Brabourne Properties Pvt. Ltd, got permission to build a four-storeyed building in the late 1970s, but it ended up to be a 21-floor market. The municipal corporation did manage to demolish eight floors, but couldn’t go further as owners and shopkeepers went to court.
“I was appalled to see bundles of plastic, rubber and garments stacked in the passages when I went in there this morning with my men,” said a lieutenant-colonel of the army’s ordnance corps, a contingent of which has been rushed in to help the state fire service.
“There are no extinguishers, fire alarms or sprinklers in there. I’m surprised it didn’t catch fire earlier.”
However, the shopkeepers are quick to blame the building’s owner.
“They deliberately set fire to the market because they want to set up a modern mall here,” claims Jain. “We petitioned them many times, but to no avail.”
Jain points to Suresh Somani, a trader from adjoining Jamnalal Bajaj Street, who, Jain claims, wrote 77 letters to the various officials in the fire services.
The firemen, in turn, point fingers at the traders. “How do they explain the 300 litres of diesel sitting alongside a generator in a 12th floor room?” asks Sanjib Banerjee, a fire services officer who was one of the first to reach the terrace of the building on Saturday night. “There are tin sheds up there, packed with plastics, rubber, paint and thinner.”
“This is not the time to throw the rulebook at the traders who have lost all they had, but it would be unfair to blame the fire brigade,” says Kolkata Police special additional commissioner Zulfiquar Hasan. “Last night, it was Banerjee who led his men up with practically no protection.”
The beleaguered city firemen, under fire for their slow response, for having defunct equipment and for looting, are also praised by their army counterparts. “I think they have done a splendid job,” says Lt Col S.K. Vohra, overall in-charge of the army firefighters. “They had the high-reach turntable, which we didn’t, while we have equipment like asbestos fire-protection suits to supplement their efforts.”
Expressing his agreement with the fire brigade’s strategy of letting the fire burn itself out, Vohra says: “A fire of this nature cannot be extinguished merely by hosing water from outside.”
According to him, it has to be tackled from within—one floor at a time.