Kolkata still burning – with anger and rage

By Sirshendu Panth, IANS,

Kolkata : Three days after the Stephen Court fire that snuffed out 24 lives, including many youngsters, Kolkatans were Friday seething at the authorities’ callousness that triggered and aggravated the tragedy.

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With West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee admitting that a “vicious cycle” existed in connivance with a section of the administration that allowed construction of additional floors on buildings like the century-old Stephen Court, a nexus involving the city civic body, state administration, the police and unscrupulous promoters has come to the fore – though not for the first time.

Dilip Naskar, who runs a tea stall in South Kolkata’s Bhowanipore, does not mince words while talking about the “illegal constructions”.

“What happened to those in Stephen Court could have happened to me also. Or you. These old buildings are death traps. They look majestic only from the outside. There is virtually no upkeep. It is very difficult to even locate the actual owners in many cases,” Naskar told IANS.

“And with a large section of the bureaucrats and Kolkata Municipal Corporation employees sitting with waiting arms to get their palms greased, all illegal constructions by unethical owners get passed,” he added.

The fire in the heart of the city’s happening Park Street broke out Tuesday afternoon and rapidly spread in the residence-office block, trapping scores. It blazed for several hours, leaving 24 dead and a dozen untraced.

Some of those trapped died when they jumped from higher floors to escape the leaping flames. Most others were caught in the blaze unable to escape after finding the only fire exit shut and blocked. Their charred bodies were discovered Tuesday night and early Wednesday.

The anger is palpable and widespread.

Sukhendu Roy, a mathematics teacher in a private school, said people should speak out strongly and send a clear-cut message that they would not tolerate such wrongdoings on the part of the people they elect.

“The government has to take the blame. Why was the police not vigilant enough? How did the construction happen before their very eyes?” he said.

“People should speak out against corruption in the administration and among the political leadership that allows such illegal constructions to take place,” Roy said.

Mohammed Motiur Rahman, the caretaker of a housing complex in South Kolkata, was more forthright. “The only language the powers-that-be understand is of force. We should forcefully tell them that enough is enough. They should either rectify themselves or get lost.”

Upcoming painter Biswa Bose blamed the “ill-equipped fire services department” for the high death count.

“Only if the firemen had nets, people who jumped out of the upper floor windows would not have perished,” said Bose.

“The fire brigade brought the skylift and the browsers late again. I read in the newspapers that the skylift kept close to the spot was out of order. So they had to bring skylifts from far-off places. That took away a lot of precious time. Had the skylifts come quickly, more lives would have been saved.”

Tulsi Prasad Dutta, a banker, said the government lacked the courage to take strong action against those involved in nefarious activities.

“Nowadays there are frequent fire incidents. And every incident causes devastation. But the state government only seems to make lofty promises, which they forget later,” he said.

“I have never seen them take any visible steps. The government only makes announcements. But they are reluctant to take tough action. They seem to be afraid of what consequences such actions may have ahead of next year’s assembly elections.”