Great escape from building blaze
Crime spurt rings cop alert on hiring help
Sunny, dry days ahead
Cobblers learn leather tips from corporates
Deep roots, open arms in mission to educate
The phoney phone man’s at the door, watch your wallet
Mother charges son with detaining minor
Old wiring poses major fire hazard
Go-slow cripples gas supply after strike ends
Dalhousie jewel under threat

Calcutta, March 18: 
Perched 60 feet above the ground, clinging desperately to a swaying plank of wood and clad in a sari, which made movement at such heights and in such circumstances almost impossible, 35-year-old Nandita Chakraborty wondered what she had done to deserve this.

For the employee of Gajanan Industries, it was a choice between fumes and free fall. Just half an hour earlier, a fire had broken out in the electrical mains on the ground floor of Stephen House, at BBD Bag.

When the fire broke out, most of the people on the first and second floors of the building, which houses over a hundred offices, made it to safety by rushing past the burning electric box.

But over a hundred others remained trapped in the building, not knowing whether to make a dash for the entrance or just climb to the roof and wait for the firemen to put out the blaze.

More than the fire, it was the smoke that was choking the people trapped in the building. The blaze, by all accounts, was not a big one and did not spread beyond a corner of the ground floor.

Dark clouds of smoke were billowing from one floor to another, and the terrified office-goers feared that the entire building would be engulfed by the flames in a matter of minutes.

“My office is situated on the third floor and within 20 minutes of the fire breaking out, every inch of the premises was full of black smoke,” said Nandita. “We thought death was at hand and nothing could save us from a horrible end. Not even the ringing bells of the fire tenders brought us any hope.”

The firemen could, of course, do little to help those trapped in the higher reaches of the building. They set up a ladder against a window on the first floor and evacuated those who were trapped. But they were only a handful. For the rest, the firemen decided first to douse the flames and then rush up and rescue them. Panic spread faster than the smoke on the upper floors. Already, people from the second floor had rushed up, and people were whispering about death by asphyxiation.

It was at this time that Debabrata Pahari and a few of his colleagues in the adjacent building had a brainwave. Leaning out of their third-floor Electro Steel Casting office, they figured that the distance between the two buildings was around four feet, a distance not difficult to bridge.

They quickly went looking for planks of wood and found them in a nearby godown. Then they got their plan working.

Shouting across to the trapped people on the third floor of Stephen House, they told them they would slide the planks across to bridge the gap to safety. And then, the final instruction: one by one, they should climb across, keeping their hands, and more importantly their heads, very steady.

First, the ladies. That is how Nandita and Kabita Sharma made their journey, wondering whether they would cross the short distance or plummet to death three floors below. They made it. So did 150 others, over a period of nearly 45 minutes.

“That short crawl was agonising,” said a relieved Kabita, an employee of R.N. Goswami and Co. “I almost lost my nerve and my balance every time the plank wobbled. But the words of encouragement from across the divide helped me make it.”

For Kasturi Das of Profile, it was worth the risk, though it did cross her mind that the plank may not be able to take her weight.

Surendra Sharma, an employee of Ocean Industries Company, fell unconscious while trying to retrieve some important files from office. But he regained consciousness after first-aid. No other cases of injury were reported.

John Mantosh, of Dalhousie Property Limited, the company that owns the building, pointed an accusing finger at CESC for “failing to maintain” a vigil over consumption of electricity by tenants. Negligence on the part of the CESC, coupled with the installation of a “thicker fuse” which had borne the extra electrical load but led to the melting of wires in the mains, had caused the fire, Mantosh alleged.

A senior CESC official, confirmed that the fire had been sparked by “overheated wiring” which was in poor shape. “Power to the building has been switched off. Repairs should be complete by Thursday,” the official added.


Calcutta, March 18: 
Better safe than sorry — that’s the line to follow before hiring domestic help. Or else, the consequences can be dangerous, even fatal, police warned on Wednesday.

Twenty-four hours after Moni Devi Agarwal, 60, was murdered in her Bangur Avenue apartment by a teenaged servant who escaped with cash and jewellery worth several lakh of rupees, police have written to Doordarshan and All India Radio to issue an appeal alerting residents to follow three directives before employing anybody for household chores:

Gather information about the domestic help’s antecedents, including residential address, and ask for a photograph

If possible, contact previous employers to inquire about their character and conduct.

Inform the local police station and enter the new recruit’s name and particulars in the servants’ register.

Inspector-general of police, south Bengal, Ranjit Mohanty, in the appeal to be telecast on TV and radio, states that “incidents of violence, theft and murder by domestic help are being reported frequently... All residents are hereby alerted that before employing servants, they should strictly follow these steps.”

Police investigations revealed that Sagar, the servant whom the Agarwals had employed a year and a half ago, had gagged and throttled Moni Devi before escaping with the loot on Tuesday evening. The murder took place while Narsingh Agarwal, a Burrabazar cloth merchant, had gone with his wife to the local market, leaving mother Mona Devi and sister Reshmi at home with Sagar. Reshmi told the police that Sagar returned around 8 pm, with another young man, who she had never seen before. Sagar introduced the youth as a relative, for whom he needed a loan of Rs 100. As Moni Debi opened the almirah to take out the money, Sagar suddenly grabbed Reshmi and held a knife to her throat. His associate shoved Moni Devi on to the bed, then gagged and throttled her. She died of asphyxiation. The youth then took cash and jewellery from the locker and left.

Preliminary investigations revealed that Sagar and his associate, said to be linked to similar cases before, hail from Dhenkanal. “Sagar might not be his real name. The Agarwals knew nothing about his antecedents. They were desperately looking for a servant when a local tea-stall vendor introduced Sagar to them... We have alerted Balasore and Bhadrak and activated our sources here in the city to track them down,’’ Mohanty said.

In connection with another case of crime by domestics, Amherst Street police arrested Bonbehari Behra, servant at Debashis Bose’s residence in the area, on charges of stealing Rs 16,000.

“We appeal to the people to fill up the servant register form kept at every police station. This will act as a deterrent to servants with criminal intent, and enable us to keep track of them,” said deputy commissioner of police, south, Ranjit Pachnanda.


Calcutta, March 18: 
The weather is likely to remain sunny and dry for the next 48 hours, even though there have been heavy showers and gusty winds through Tuesday night. Wednesday was cooler as the maximum temperature remained at 31 degrees Celsius, five degrees below normal. R.N. Goldar, director of the Alipore Met office, said Tuesday’s rain was caused by a trough of low pressure extending from Bihar to north Orissa. Tuesday’s Nor’wester was more fierce in the city’s northern areas, like Dum Dum, where the windspeed was around 64 kph. In the city proper, the windspeed did not exceed 35 kph.

“From Wednesday morning, the sky cleared as the trough shifted eastward. As a result, the temperature will rise and hover around 34 degrees Celsius,” Goldar said. The sky is expected to remain clear for the next two days.

There may be rains again on Saturday, as another low pressure trough is developing over Pakistan, Afghanistan, Rajasthan and Haryana, he said. “This is Nor’wester season and there will be rain and storms till the formal onset of the monsoon in June,” Goldar added.


Calcutta, March 18: 
Sheikh Alamgir pauses in front of the entrance to the ornate conference hall of Great Eastern Hotel, mopping the sweat off his brow with the tail of his grubby dhoti. Alamgir, a cobbler in the street, has walked from his hole-in-the-wall shoe-repair facility on Phears Lane to take part in a meet at which he is a special invitee. He has been told that he can pick up tips here which can do wonders for his“dhanda”.

Summoning up enough courage to enter the hall filled with traders and executives from the leather trade, all in swank suits, an awestruck Alamgir is introduced to the use of synthetic threads and plastic lasts which “can improve the quality of service” he provides his customers. “Hamare jaisa to yahan koi nahin hai... par yahan aake bahut naya cheez dekhne ko mila hai (There is no one like me here... but I’ve seen so many new things),” smiles the muchi.

The two-day buyer-seller interface-cum-exhibition organised by the Indian Footwear Components Manufacturers Association (Ifcoma), with National Leather Development Programme, provides a platform for the small leather manufacturers in and around the city, and even the street cobbler like Alamgir and others who followed, to learn the latest tricks in the trade — from components and accessories to machinery.

“Our aim is to change the mindset of the small shoe-maker and even the wayside mender by organising the right availability of components and raw material. Thus, the cobbler can use durable plastic lasts instead of the traditional wooden ones, increase his productivity and achieve a better price for his final product by using better sewing, lasting and cementing machines,” explains Ifcoma president Mani Almal.

“Earlier, the emphasis was only on skill upgradation and it’s true that Bengal still has the finest shoe craftsmen in the country. Through expositions like this, we are trying to support that skill with technological intervention and improved components,” adds S.S. Kumar, chairman, eastern region, Council for Leather Exports.

The response to this interface has been positive. Ranjan Rakshit, a 26-year-old trainee at the Ramakrishna Mission Jana Shiksha Mandir, Belur Math’s vocational training course in shoe and chappal-making, feels the exposure will help him set up his business. Experts feel that such exhibitions can also go a long way in making the Indian footwear industry “self-sufficient”.


Calcutta, March 18: 
Carmel Primary School is, today, one the best-known English-medium schools of the city. When it started, however, it gave refuge to a few underprivileged kids of the area, who had no one else to turn to. Even today, the Deshapriya Park school has not lost touch with its roots, continuing its social service programme, involving students, teachers as well as parents.

“We built the school intending to start normal, private classes. But local slum-dwellers came to us asking whether they could admit their children,” says principal Sister Teresa Alvares. So the school decided to take in both. Now, there are around 1,000 students in the primary school. Sections A, B and C, until Class IV, accommodate around 800 English-medium girls, while the Section D, up to Class VII, has 250 girls.

“Two little hands go clap-clap-clap,” chorus girls of Class IV D, Rinku, Asha, Kajal and friends, aged between 8 and 11. Rinku lives ‘in majjid’, or by the near-by masjid, as do most of her classmates. Her mother takes a break from work as a domestic help to drop the eight-year-old off to school. Rinku would like to be an English teacher when she grows up.

Uniforms, books, stationery, tiffin are all provided by the school. Little distinction is made between the groups of students. “They all have the same teachers,” explains Reba Mukherjee, who teaches PT and Bengali. During one week, the English-medium students are asked to bring rations and other supplies from home, which are given to their less-privileged friends. Health camps are held regularly, and spectacles and medicines distributed free.

Adult literacy classes are held in the evenings. “We started the classes for both men and women,” says Sister Teresa. “But soon we found the men were not at all interested in studying, while the women were extremely eager. The ladies soon started sending their children to school as well.” There are around 25 regular students in the evening class.

Students are also involved in various social awareness projects. “We have been participating in the Better Calcutta Contest since its inception in 1989,” says one of the coordinating teachers, Simonti Banerjee. Last November, kids climbed into mosquito costumes and walked the nearby streets for an awareness drive about malaria and clean drinking water. Over 1,000 children took part, performing street plays, singing songs, armed with posters they made themselves.

The kids all get together and help out at an annual blood donation camp. A trip is paid to the St Joseph’s old age home every Christmas. But the most special occasion? When all kids perform at an annual function to which all parents are invited.


Calcutta, March 18: 
Case I: Hindustan Park, 11 am. The doorbell rings loud and clear at a two-storeyed house. A middle-aged housewife admits a man who says he is there to fix the phone, which has gone ‘dead’ since the morning. He tinkers with the telephone, restores the line, and leaves — with the handbag with cash and credit card.

Case II: New Alipore, 1.30 pm. A telephone ‘lineman’ breezes in, and goes about his work in a businesslike manner. Before leaving, he asks for a glass of water. When the lady of the house emerges from the kitchen a few minutes later, the man is gone, and so is a wallet containing cash and credit cards.

Case III: Triangular Park, 2.15 pm. A man turns up, claiming to be the telephone repairman. But the elderly woman at the door refuses to let him in, as there’s nothing wrong with the phone. The man first insists that he’s there for a ‘routine check’, but beats a hasty retreat when she threatens to call the cops.

Watch that front door, for petty thieves in the guise of telephone repairmen are on the prowl in south Calcutta. Their modus operandi is simple — they target a house and tamper with the overhead lines; one man is posted by the ‘pole’, while another turns up at the house when its at its most deserted, armed with a dial-bar; the ‘phone man’ waits for an opportunity to swipe a bag or wallet and pass it to an accomplice waiting outside. “I have dealt with many tricksters. but thieves posing as telephone employees seem to be peculiar to south Calcutta,” observed Gariahat police station OC D.P. Bhattacharya.

“We really had no reason to suspect the man, as our phone had gone ‘dead’ since the morning and he showed up in the afternoon. It was only after he left, having fixed the phone, did we realise that a wallet had gone missing,” complain the New Alipore G-Block victims. They did file an FIR, but the police failed to take any action.

Hindustan Park is a prime target. Says Neoti Sinha, the latest victim in the locality: “The man looked perfectly respectable and he seemed to know exactly what was wrong with the phone.” The bag of a guest, Nilanjana Dey, disappeared with the man. The Sinhas, and Dey, lodged an FIR at the local police station and visited the Russa telephone exchange. The next day, all linemen on duty in the locality were lined up for identification. But the ‘repairman’ was nowhere to be found.

S.K. Sarkar, sub-divisional engineer, Russa II, admits that such cases of fraud affect the image of Calcutta Telephones, but says it is up to the people to be alert. Residents of south Calcutta have been advised to check the identity card issued by the telecom department and the fault list, the next time the ‘phoneman’ comes calling.


Calcutta, March 18: 
A mother lodged a complaint against her son on Wednesday for illegally detaining a minor girl. Namita Laha accused her son, Debasish, of confining the girl at their residence on Pitambar Ghatak Lane, under the Alipore police station area. Police raided the Laha residence and rescued the girl. She was later handed over to her mother. A case has been started against Debasish, on the basis of his mother’s complaint.

Laha, a middle-aged divorcee, had proposed to Aparna Porel, a sex worker living in B.K. Pal Avenue. He threatened her with dire consequences when she declined his proposal. Finally, he picked up Aparna’s daughter, Rupa, a few days ago. Debasish’s mother and Aparna then informed the local police. Aparna had met Banibrata Basu, deputy commissioner of the detective department, a few months ago and complained that Laha, along with some of his accomplices, had ransacked her room and asked her to leave Calcutta.

“Our investigation is in progress and we are looking for Debasish,” said Pinaki Mondal, officer-in-charge of Alipore police station.


Calcutta, March 18: 
Wednesday’s blaze at Stephen House was an eye-opener to the fire threat that is posed to old commercial complexes in the city by ill-maintained and dilapidated electrical wiring. “There are at least 200 such buildings between Burrabazar and Park Street which are nearly 100 years old and where a major fire can break out any day,” said a senior CESC official.

The fire brigade agrees it’s a sorry situation. “The government should do something soon to force owners of these buildings, housing hundreds of offices, to overhaul their wiring,” a senior fire brigade official said.

A committee has been formed, comprising officials of the fire brigade, police and civic authorities, to carry out a survey on the hazardous buildings in the city. “When the panel begins work, electrical connections of these buildings will come under scrutiny,” said deputy director of fire services, Baren Sen.

The problem with buildings like Stephen House lies in conversion of the once-big office units into an increased number of smaller offices.

“There were about 20 offices in Stephen House 40 years ago. Now, there are more than 200 offices. Each is a separate business unit, entitled to individual electricity connection. The electrical wires have probably not been cleaned of cobwebs, let alone changed in the past 15 years,” a CESC official said.

Moreover, there are instances where offices started off with a modest load of electricity and had their meters installed accordingly. “Later, the addition of heavy-duty electrical gadgets increased load on their wiring and other electrical fittings. If the load goes on rising in the same complex year after year, an explosion in the meter box is not unusual,” CESC sources said.

The private power utility can’t check individual houses or offices unless there is a specific complaint. There is no problem of transformer overload in the city at the moment as the CESC has installed a large number of heavy-duty transformers over the past two years.


Calcutta, March 18: 
The supply of cooking gas to the city and the districts by Indian Oil Corporation is picking up after the Citu-led employees’ union called off its state-wide agitation at the oil company’s installations on Tuesday.

But normalcy has yet to be restored, as the Intuc-led employees’ union has launched a go-slow from Tuesday.

“Since the Citu-led union is dominant in Bengal, work has begun at all installations except Haldia, where supply of petroleum products dropped to only 30 per cent on Wednesday,” said a spokesperson for the oil company.

The backlog of about 12 days in the supply of LPG cylinders in the city has started to be cleared with 134 trucks, loaded with over 40,000 cooking gas cylinders, arriving from Indian Oil’s Kalyani, Durgapur and Budge Budge bottling plants, the spokesperson added. Indian Oil supplies 120 trucks of LPG to Calcutta daily.

The Citu-led Indian Oil Corporation Shramik Union had resorted to a go-slow agitation from April 6 demanding immediate implementation of a national agreement on wages and other demands, signed between the management and 20 unions in January. The union also struck work for four days from April 2.

The union called off its stir after assurances from the Indian Oil authorities. But, the Intuc-led union, which is a recognised union and did not sign the agreement, launched a go-slow in protest against certain terms of the agreement.

Loading of petrol, diesel and kerosene at the Indian Oil installations at Mourigram, Budge Budge, Siliguri and Rajbandh, and bottling of LPG cylinders at the oil company’s Kalyani and Durgapur plants had come to a stop on April 2 as a result of the Citu-affiliated employees striking work.


Calcutta, March 18: 
Will the magnificent, stone-clad Mackinnon Mackenzie & Company Ltd building at 16 Strand Road go the Currency Building way? If Strand Properties Ltd, which owns the building, had its way, it would be erased in no time, armed as it is with a Calcutta High Court order, dated August 8, 2000, that says it can demolish it if necessary.

But ITC, one of its sub-lessees under Mackinnon Mackenzie, pre-empted it by obtaining an interim stay order till Thursday, when the case is coming up for hearing again. Even earlier, another sub-lessee, Blacker & Company, had done the same. Strand Properties is held by Mackinnon Mackenzie and Williamson Magor in the ratio of 72 per cent and 28 per cent, respectively.

This building, one of the jewels of Dalhousie Square, has been listed as a heritage structure by the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC) and at least on paper, it is supposed to be inviolate.

Its troubles began on November 7, 1998, when a fire which was detected early in the morning, gutted the core of four floors of this five-storey fabric, leaving a pit in the middle.

All its tenants, not less than 14, left it soon after and now the only people who occupy parts of the groundfloor are former employees of Mackinnon Mackenzie, 166 of whom were sacked right after the blaze.

After a court case, they reached an agreement with the company on January 25, but their representatives say even after three months that they have not seen any money yet.

However, Pramod Mishra, general manager of the company, says gratuity was paid in two instalments. So the men are fighting a lonely battle in this abandoned building. They complain that even after two years, the inquiry report on the fire has not materialised.

A fire of such intensity that twisted the iron beams 20-25 ft above the ground, surprisingly, left the facade untouched.

The huge glass dome, wrapped in mesh, in the atrium, too, is not beyond repair. The staircase is dark, but still intact. The four floors are a tangled mass of office furniture and debris.

Though overgrown with man-high weeds, and in spite of a yawning hole in the middle, the terrace shows no sign of being stressed out. The staff quarters on the terrace, where 300 people used to live, still look lived-in. Somebody could have done puja in the tiny shrines a little while ago. Even a fire extinguisher looks new.

Little wonder that CMC was against the building being demolished and in favour of the gutted portions being reconstructed. However, Mumbai-based Rear Admiral P. K. Sinha, one of the nominee directors of Strand Properties, said over the phone on Wednesday that the safety aspect was their only concern in seeking the building’s demolition. Even structural engineers had declared the building unsafe.

And though ITC, which occupied about 8000 sq ft on the second floor, threw a spanner in the works, the tenancy issue could have been sorted out in court, he said.

Pramod Mishra of Mackinnon Mackenzie and S. K. Pal of Williamson Magor, too, cite safety as their prime concern.

So till Thursday, the building’s fate hangs fire.


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