It has been a month since the worst fire in living memory gutted the Burrabazar trade hub in Kolkata. But the signs of devastation are still manifested at every step. The charred remains of the Nandaram complex in the area bear a testimony to the universal fact that nothing in this world is permanent. Still, like the Phoenix, Nandaram complex has risen from its ashes, and is trudging towards starting a fresh episode of business and livelihood.
Last month, when the fire demon had unleashed its fury on the trade hub located in the heart of the Metropolis, Headlines India had taken its readers on a journey inside the complex- right up to the thirteenth floor, giving them a lucid picture of the ravaged building. A month after the fire first broke out in the area, Headlines India visited Nandaram complex once again, and decided to do a reality check into the state of affairs in what happens to be the largest trade zone of Kolkata, and also the lapses on part of the administration.
The facts we came across with are astonishing, and reveal the extent of deterioration the once-loved ‘City of Joy’ has undergone, thanks to state’s laidback administration.
For anyone who has never visited Kolkata, the old-world charm of Burrabazar would seem alien. The scene in the trade hub – millions of people walking past dingy lanes full of potholes; daily wage earners running around with heavy loads on their heads; auto rickshaws, hand-pulled rickshaws, scooters, bicycles, cows and dogs alongside a horde of pedestrians, hawkers and traders; dilapidated buildings and claustrophobic shops – might even sound scary to many. But for Kolkatans, the true spirit of shopping lies in Burrabazar. They can brave the jerky rides, they can brave bumping into someone after every step, and they can even brave getting suffocated. But they cannot do without shopping at Burrabazar, which sells everything one can imagine, at wholesale prices.
Till exactly a month back, the same scene could be seen everyday at Nandaram complex. Now, the complex looks more like a ghost house from a horror film. On visiting the complex, one is filled with a sense of shock and fear, tinged with a heavy dose of sadness. The yellow walls have turned charcoal black, and the grilled windows are now lying as nude hollows in the walls.
Inside the building, there is pitch darkness, as electricity has been disconnected. The shops still lie in a damaged state, with collapsed shutters, charred walls and burnt goods. Although a large portion of the debris has been removed, at every floor inside the building, fire has left indelible signs.
The elevator in the building is out of order, and traders and labourers are in constant movement along the stairs, which are lit by the sun peeping through the windows. A police picket is positioned on the fifth floor, beyond which no one – including the media – is allowed to go. They tell Headlines India that the building is extremely unsafe, and hence the floors above the fifth floor have been locked away from public eye. Large chunks of the building are being thrown down from the top floors, after Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) passed orders to demolish the unsafe portions of the building.
And amidst all this chaos, business has already begun in the lower floors of the building. Although the goods have been destroyed, and there are hardly any takers, the traders who have lost it all in the fire, are trying to pick up the bits and pieces of their shattered lives, and move ahead. The same old scene of traffic congestion, hodge-podge of people, sound of horns mingled with the shouts of traders and hawkers has returned to areas adjoining Nandaram. But one still feels something is lacking. It is the old spirit of the Nandaram complex, which now stands engulfed in an eerie silence.
The gory sight that greets any person passing by Nandaram complex in Burrabazar area of central Kolkata, is enough to make one’s stomach churn and eyes moisten. The market, which operated in full swing till a month ago, has now been reduced to a pile of bricks, rubble and debris of goods that were ravaged in the devastating fire that engulfed the complex on January 12, and kept rearing its ugly head for more than 100 hours.
The fire has been doused, but the pain as well as the scars of the burn still remain – on the building, which has forgotten its trademark yellow colour, and worn a sooty cover, on the area adjoining the complex, which bears an ominous look, despite the business having returned to near normalcy, and in the hearts of traders who were reduced from riches to rags in less than a week
On a recent visit to Nandaram market, Headlines India stumbled upon many facts, which mainly reflect the laidback attitude of the administration. Perhaps, the fire could have been averted, or maybe controlled, had the administration been a little more alert! Perhaps, the damage would not have reached to such an extent, had the administration realised the consequences of a disaster in an area like Burrabazar.
After the recent fire, the administration has been claiming that the building – from sixth floor to the twelfth floor – is illegal. Talking to Headlines India, S K Chowdhury, Secretary of Nandaram Market Traders’ Welfare Association, accepted that the top floors are illegal, but at the same time, alleged the administration of being negligent and claimed that it was the administration that did nothing to demolish the “illegal” structure.
Chowdhury said, “In 1988, the Supreme Court had declared the top seven floors of the building illegal. We accepted the honourable court’s order, and after that, we appealed to the authorities many times to demolish the illegal portions of the buildings. They came a couple of times, but ultimately, on grounds that the structure was solid, we came to a settlement and the demolition was deferred. Then, after some years, we again asked them to demolish the upper floors, but they never paid any heed. Then last month, the inevitable happened, and see what state the building is in now.”
Chowdhury added, “Now, when a massive fire has gutted the building, and a big question mark has been put on the safety of the markets in Burrabazar, they are trying to cover up their negligence by saying that the building is illegally constructed. We agree that the building is illegal, but then again, they are to be blamed for not having done anything about an illegal establishment. Forget about demolition, the authorities have even been collecting tax from us. And to top it all, they have issued us trading license, and we are operating through these licenses.”
S G Toshniwal, a trader who has lost two of his shops in the Burrabazar blaze, also has similar complaints against the authorities. He told Headlines India: “All of us in this area operate through valid trade licenses. The licenses have been issued by the authorities, so how can they say that the markets in Burrabazar are illegal? We are even paying taxes, but when it comes to getting some kind of support from them, we get nothing.”
Perplexed at the tax collection and trade license issuance by the authorities for an establishment termed “illegal”, Headlines India procured a set of trade licenses and tax collection documents from Chowdhury. We found that the license and other papers are authentic and valid, and to our utter surprise, Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) had collected tax for the shops even till the end of 2007, that is, just a little more than a month before the fire broke out!
B D Mimani, Secretary of Chamber of Textile Trade and Industry, Kolkata, feels that this does not end here. Besides the lapses on part of the administration, Mimani is more disheartened by the lack of empathy the authorities have for the people who have lost almost a lifetime of their sweat and blood in the fire. Expressing his disappointment to Headlines India, he said, “We have been hearing that the affected people will get compensation, but nothing is happening so far. In fact, in the last 20 years that I have been associated with business in Burrabazar, I don’t remember people even coming to see how we are functioning.”
Explaining the problems traders face in Burrabazar, Mimani said, “The buildings are old, there are not to many modern equipments to combat disasters. Moreover, we face problems of electricity, water and other infrastructure. But no body cares to think from our perspective. They just say that our establishments are illegal, and that they would demolish them. We are ready even for that. In fact, it will be a welcome change to all of us. But they are not even doing anything to create new structures.”
Having heard all complaints and problems of the traders of Burrabazar, Headlines India reporter went to meet Dipankar Dey, Member Mayor-in-Council, Buildings and License. After much reluctance, Dey agreed to talk to us. When asked about the complaints of the traders, Dey shrugged off saying tax collection or issuance of license does not have anything to do with an establishment being illegal. “We offer trade license to anybody who has a possession of space and wants to start a business. And possessing a space means he will have to pay tax. All this does not have anything to do with a building being legal or illegal,” Dey said.
When asked about the failure of KMC to demolish the building after it was declared illegal in 1988, Dey said, “We went there a couple of times to demolish the construction. But we were attacked by the traders and their friends. So we did not go again. Now we have given orders to demolish the upper floors and the work is already in progress”. So after being attacked by the traders in Burrabazar, did the KMC officials file any police complaint? Dipankar Dey had no answer. He evaded the question, and left in a hurry.
So what is happening in the fire-ravaged Burrabazar now? The traders have started believing in the saying that “Self help is the best help”, and are now fighting to build their shattered lives anew. The 693 tenants of Nandaram complex have formed Nandaram Market Disaster Management Welfare Committee, and are helping each other in every possible way. They have also formed a core committee named Burrabazar Fire Relief Committee, consisting of various associations, which are extending relief to the affected people.
Meanwhile, the administration has also formed a core committee, consisting of police, electricity department, fire department and KMC. The committee has ordered demolition of unsafe portions of Nandaram complex. Their long-term plans are not known yet, but all the traders are hoping that at least this time, something would be done to address their woes.