Kolkata: Thousands of small traders in Kolkata who sell everything from perfumes to paints and plastics to plywood out of teeming city markets face the risk of being put out of business for not complying with fire safety regulations. The threat looms after fire gutted five markets in as many months, with one blaze leaving 13 people dead.
The Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) and the fire services department of the West Bengal government late last month declared 18 businesses to be fire hazards at the start of a crackdown by the civic authority, said Mayor Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya. They will need the department’s approval to have their trading licences renewed, he said.
The Kolkata Municipal Corporation office. A new law on fire safety is expected in two months (Photo by: Indranil Bhoumik / Mint)
Kolkata has 450,000 registered small traders operating out of the narrow lanes and bylanes of Burrabazar, the city’s wholesale hub, and other commercial areas where illegal constructions are numerous and overhead power cables dangling dangerously a common sight. Shops sell wares ranging from foam and tarpaulin to tin sheets and jute ropes, cosmetics and chemicals to savouries and sweets.
These are the kind of businesses considered particularly fire-prone and they may have to close if they don’t follow regulations that require them to put in place equipment including first-aid kits, smoke detectors, fire alarms and water sprinklers, and build alternative exits.
Municipal officials are also asking the state government for more powers to seal shops running without valid trade licences in the eastern Indian metropolis of more than 14 million people.
“A large section of them might have their licences cancelled,” said Dipankar De, member of the mayor-in-council—KMC’s governing body.
“A new law is going to be passed by the West Bengal assembly within two months. This would enable us to effectively implement fire safety norms in Kolkata’s markets.”
Fire service department officials say almost all the old markets of Kolkata lack fire-fighting infrastructure. A mock drill conducted last month at the 135-year-old New Market, a Kolkata landmark, by the National Disaster Management Authority found that all its fire hydrants were jammed. New Market was damaged by fire a few years ago, but that apparently didn’t ring a loud-enough alarm.
“What is more, there is no ready source of water (at New Market). It could take ages to fetch water,” said Dipak Sarkar, divisional officer of the state’s fire prevention wing.
Things are worse at Burrabazar, where a fire at Nandaram building earlier this year raged for 100 hours. The most recent fire broke out this month in Burrabazar’s Mehta Building, a five-storeyed structure housing some 1,300 shops.
“Yet the market doesn’t have any fire-fighting equipment,” said Debapriya Biswas, additional director general of the fire services department.
Thirteen people died when fire raced through a ready-to-wear clothes shop on 15 May in the Sodepur Station Road area.
Kolkata traders say it isn’t feasible to implement some of the fire-safety norms and almost all of them may have their licences cancelled if civic authorities press ahead.
“(For instance) it is impossible to have two doors in each shop. Most shops do not have such provision nor would building-owners allow this,” said Mahesh Singhania, chairman of the Federation of West Bengal Traders’ Associations.
But even as KMC and the fire services department start to crack the whip, they are squabbling over whose responsibility it is to enforce the law.
“KMC has itself not implemented fire safety norms at markets run by it. Also, it hasn’t so far tried to enforce fire safety norms among traders,” said a fire service department official, who declined to be named.
KMC runs 24 markets in Kolkata and has already started revamping the fire-fighting systems in 14 of them, said the municipal authority’s De. “The fire department frames the rules and it is clearly their responsibility to keep a tab on the shops…check periodically if they follow the rules,” he said.