Kolkata: The two floors of Stephen Court in Kolkata’s upscale Park Street area, where a midday blaze killed at least 26 people on Tuesday, were illegal constructions that had been “regularized”, or condoned, by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC).
The building is 80 years old. The top two floors were added in 1984. Although the KMC initially declared them illegal, they were regularized five years later after the owners paid a penalty. Now the state government has ordered that the two floors be demolished.
Condoning illegal constructions is a key moneyspinner for KMC, according to Dipankar De, mayor-in-council for buildings. De said the civic body had earned around Rs50 crore last year alone by regularizing illegal constructions. “That’s about 25% of the KMC’s annual income from fees collected for sanctioning building plans,” he said.
Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee told the state legislative assembly on Thursday that the fire was an “eye-opener”. The government has learnt that “some people in the administration are hand-in-glove with real estate developers”, he said.
It is because of patronage of people from within the administration that builders manage to deviate from sanctioned plans and yet prevent the demolition of such “illegal constructions” by the civic authorities, he said. “We are going to crack down on this nexus,” Bhattacharjee told legislators.
But fire and emergency services minister Pratim Chatterjee said, a day after the Stephen Court blaze, there’s little his department could do to enforce fire safety norms in old buildings “until an accident happened” —largely because of weak laws.
Though the state passed a law in 1996 making compliance with fire safety norms mandatory for all buildings above 14.5m, the administration cannot take any action against properties built before the law came into being, Chatterjee said in an interview.
“We are going to give the KMC a list of 280 buildings across Kolkata that do not comply with fire safety norms,” Chatterjee added. “If it wants, the KMC could declare these buildings as unsafe.”
KMC has so far declared as many as 1,800 buildings in Kolkata as unsafe, according to De, but only 300 have been demolished. Many of them are old heritage structures that are to be preserved for their historical significance, De added.
Stephen Court was one such building, housing a large number of families and at least 150 offices. The building opposite it, Karnani Mansion, and the one next to Stephen Court, Queen’s Mansion, are similar heritage properties. Together, they house at least 500 families and 250-300 commercial establishments, including some of Kolkata’s most popular restaurants.
A fire department official, who did not want to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media, called Karnani Mansion a tinderbox.
“Each block of Karnani Mansion has only one exit, which means evacuating people would be very difficult,” he said, adding that this is true of almost all old buildings in Kolkata. “Occupants do not seem to appreciate the danger, and have no firefighting equipment at all,” he said.
Poor maintenance is another problem with these buildings, often because owners are fighting court cases to evict tenants. “The elevators are old, the power cables are not fire-resistant, and almost all these buildings have old piped-gas connections. Most importantly, no one is taught what to do in the event of a fire.”
Making old buildings such as the Karnani Mansion and Queen’s Mansion comply with fire safety norms is “almost impossible”, according to G.M. Kapur, a conservationist. The structural changes needed to make them compliant are simply impossible in old buildings such as these, he said.
Aveek Datta contributed to this story.