Kolkata continues to play with fire

Last Updated: Thu, Feb 28, 2013 13:14 hrs

Kolkata: While the city gets ravaged by recurring fire tragedies with successive governments hiding inadequacies behind committees and probes, experts feel flouting of safety norms has turned Kolkata into a tinder box.

The fact that the city was struck by three major fires in as many years leading to the death of nearly 200 people and adding to it the countless numbers of minor fires, the blatant neglect of fire safety norms and the government's apathy towards them come to the fore.

"Kolkata continues to be an unplanned city. Buildings are mushrooming everywhere with least attention to fire safety. To compound the misery, there are shanties, illegal shops and encroachments eating away precious road space," fire service consultant Sunil Bhunia said.

He said most of the buildings in central and northern Kolkata were "virtual tinder boxes" waiting for a disaster to strike.

"The roads in the older part of the city are narrow; most of buildings do not have fire exits and inexplicably have storehouses where a large number inflammable objects any given time," he said.

The Wednesday fire in the cramped Surya Sen Market, which claimed 19 lives, and the March 23, 2010, fire at Stephen Court in Park Street which killed 43 people, happened in the central parts of the city.

While the above two mishaps and the December 2011 AMRI Hopsital fire disaster which snuffed out 94 lives, brought to fore inadequacy of the government's fire fighting abilities, the administration on all the occasions promptly set up committees and ordered probes.

"We have taken the matter of illegal buildings and those flouting fire safety norms seriously and they will neither get trade licences nor no-objection certificates from our department," Fire Services Minister Javed Khan said.

However, experts are sceptical about the move.

"There are numerous buildings which are illegal and numerous commercial buildings which are running despite not having no-objection certificates or trade licences. All these government steps are eyewash. The government wakes up during a disaster only to go to sleep again," said another fire consultant.

"We had a probe committee after the Stephen Court fire, several committees after the AMRI disaster and now this new probe on yesterday's tragedy. But where are the results?" said the consultant, who did not want to be named.

Three years have passed since the Stephen Court tragedy and the iconic building is today bustling with life.

But the residents are still apprehensive as the British-era structure has still not been equipped with adequate fire-fighting measures.

"We are looking into the matter," was Javed Khan's reply.

Rubbishing claims of committees not yielding results, the minister said: "After AMRI, we ensured that all major business complexes and hospitals strictly adhere to fire safety norms and now it is the time for residential buildings."

Ventilation expert Amitabh Sur however is not satisfied with the fire-fighting mechanism of hospitals and other commercial complexes.

"Most of the hospitals lack smoke management facilities. It was the toxic smoke that killed the victims at AMRI and not the fire. The need is to install smoke dampers and evacuation facilities to prevent an AMRI rerun," said Sur of Indian Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers.

While Khan was reluctant to admit that his department lacked modern fire fighting techniques, he conceded that overhead wires and cables, illegal shops and rampant use of combustible objects such as polythene sheets have increased vulnerability of the buildings.

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