Three-hour wait for saviour
Bound in lawsuit, a picture of neglect
Scene of seduction & shock
Click curriculum for colleges
The City Diary
House of hope that heals old scars
Rebuild signal for heritage gate
Arrests unveil Bangla market for stolen bikes
City tops list of rogue traders
Diptheria drug stocks run dry

Calcutta, Sept. 10: 
“Isn’t there anyone out there to save me? Get me out of this mess.” It was a voice without an identity emerging from the rubble of Society cinema’s crumbled awning.

“My head is bursting; it’s throbbing. Can someone give me a helmet?” This time it was the voice of Omar Sheikh, a local resident, who didn’t know if he would get out of this hell alive.

Three hours after a cloudburst reduced the 1,000-sq-ft balcony to a pile of debris, there were still frail, helpless voices emerging from it, some crying for help, some simply groaning. No one knew how many people were trapped under the pile of concrete. A few limbs were sticking out, and blood oozed out from under the stones.

But out in the open, there was total confusion and a knee-jerk reaction to the tragedy. The voices from under the rubble might have been crying for help, but those in-charge of the rescue operation seemed as much at a loss as the victims themselves.

In fact, the agencies involved in the rescue — the civic authorities, the police and the fire brigade — presented an unseemly sight as they argued among themselves on the best way of carrying out the operation, wasting time as people groaned under chunks of concrete. “We couldn’t bear to witness what was happening,” said Siddhartha Ghosh, a local youth. “We decided to take matters into our hands to help the victims.”

Initially, it was the locals who came to help the victims. “They are our relatives, they had taken shelter under the awning because it was raining so hard,” said Mohammad Shamim. “We simply couldn’t let them die because nobody could decide on what to do.”

Like Shamim, there were others, too, looking for relatives in the rubble. Peering through a small gap in the rubble, Ramila was shouting through a gap: “Manglu, tu andar hai kya (Are you underneath)?”

Breaking through the security cordon — the police had, at least, been prompt in arriving on the spot within 15 minutes — the locals went to work, shifting blocks of concrete with their hands. But they soon realised that the enormity of the task was beyond them.

Half-an-hour after the collapse, at 6 pm, the police, fire brigade and the civic officials had all gathered on the spot. So had a solitary light crane, which was totally unequal to the job it had to handle. The 2,500 people who had gathered got into a frenzy and were screaming at the rescue operators to get into the act.

The light crane made some feeble nudges at the slabs of concrete and then decided to withdraw after failing to budge the broken awning. At 6.45 pm, realising the futility of the attempt, Raj Kanojia, joint comissioner, armed police, supervising the operation, started pleading with the civic officials to make “better arrangements... Please send a bigger crane,” he told some civic officals on his mobile phone.

Half an hour later, as the crowd was threatening to go out of control and the Rapid Action Force readied for action, another crane arrived. This one, too, failed to budge the slabs.

Then, the officials on the spot went into a tizzy. What next, they were asked each other. A payloader arrived at 8 pm. Then, before it went to work, there were another hectic round of parleys. Should it be used to lift the chunks or break them down? More disagreements, and finally, it was decided that under the circumstances, it would be unwise to use the payloader, as it could push up the death toll. At 8.50, finally, a huge CMC crane reached the spot and rescue work began in earnest.


Calcutta, Sept. 10: 
Caught in a legal tangle, the Society cinema building at 2/1, Corporation Place, which had earlier been damaged by lightning, could not withstand the impact of Monday’s downpour and finally collapsed, thanks to gross negligence. Society was one of the four halls showcaused by the police for lack of maintenance.

Who is to blame: Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC), which owns the property, or the lessee, Dr Firoz?

While that question will be thrashed out in the coming days, the civic authorities on Monday decided to do what they could have done earlier to prevent the avoidable loss of lives. “Call it coincidence or an afterthought, the fact remains that we prepared a notice on Monday intimating the civic authorities’ decision to revoke the lease term as the lessee had failed to maintain the building,” said deputy municipal commissioner (estate) Javed Iqbal. The notice was to be served on Tuesday.

Mayor Subrata Mukherjee, now in Malda, when informed about the accident by municipal commissioner Debasish Som over the telephone,instructed him to take over the building on Tuesday.

On Monday evening, Som instructed director-general (building) Ashok Roychaudhury to set up a task force to inspect the condition of leased-out civic property and submit a report to him within two months.

A senior civic estate department officer said most buildings on S.N. Banerjee Road, Free School Street and in the New Market area, which are in a bad condition, are owned by the CMC. The CMC owns New Market, but despite countless reminders over the past 10 years, the civic authorities never undertook repairs.

About eight months ago, the CMC discovered a document which proved that it is the owner of both Futnani Chambers and Society cinema and their lease terms expire by 2004. The building is a little over 60 years old and it was leased out by the CMC in the ’50s to Dr Firoz’s father.

After the document was discovered, CMC reminded the lessee that he should maintain the building properly, as upkeep was included in the lease agreement. Dr Firoz demanded that the lease be renewed for another 50 years. Recently, he filed a suit against the CMC in the city civil court for refusing to renew the lease term.

“We have decided to contest the case,” said Iqbal. Dr Firoz was not available for comment. Local councillor Provakar Mondol said if the civic authorities did not take immediate steps, similar accidents may recur in the area.


Calcutta, Sept. 10: 
Seduction’ at Society was just about to end. The 200-odd people who sat through the afternoon show of the ‘erotic thriller’ were glued to the last scenes. They were oblivious to the deluge outside.

Just as the first trickle of people leaving the hall beside Nizam’s started, came the big bang. The seats shook, the hall vibrated and a deathly silence descended. Then, the cries of alarm.

Ashok was among those who had sneaked into the hall for an “afternoon of excitement”. It was 2.30 pm when Ashok, an employee of New Market, decided to take a break from work.

“I thought I would take in a film and asked friend Sohan to come along. I feigned illness to get away from the shop,” he was to recall later.

Sohan, from Burrabazar, soon joined Ashok. “It’s been some time since we watched a film like this,” the duo decided, drawn by the big banner reading: Seduction (A).

If the name — and the blonde on the billboard — was not alluring enough, the long queue outside the ticket counter convinced Mahato and Sohan that this was the right choice.

Less than three hours later, the ‘Seduction’ signboard and the woman in pink lay in tatters. The awning supporting the billboard had crashed to the pavement below, trapping 15 people under a pile of killer concrete.

Ashok shivered in the September rain as he whispered: “It could so easily have been me, under that the rubble… I had slipped out for a smoke but returned to my seat when I saw that it was pouring outside. Several people were waiting under the awning for the rain to stop. The street outside was flooded… Who could have imagined such a ghastly accident would take place?”

According to another member of the audience, there was “complete confusion” for quite some time. “For a second, we thought the screen had ripped into two. It felt like an earthquake,” he said.

Those who were making their way out of the hall were trapped behind two concrete slabs.

Ashok stood transfixed as a melee ensued. “Someone even shouted that the roof was collapsing, adding to the chaos and panic. I did not know what to do, nor was I aware of the other exit routes,” said Ashok.

He, along with a few others, tried to rush out through the main entrance, not realising that it had now turned into a death trap. “The shrieks of the people trapped under the sunshade sent shivers down my spine. Frightened, I stood rooted to the spot.”

Escape seemed an impossible task for the 200-odd people groping in the darkness. “We thought that this was the end. We could not see anything apart from a faint light near the exit,” said Sohan.

“Some fell down in the process and were trampled upon. The fear of being caught in a stampede was overwhelming,” Sohan added.

They finally managed to slip outside, where the scenes of death and debris awaited them.

“I am not watching another movie in the near future,” was all that Ashok could murmur, as he stared at the mangled remains of a man being dragged out from the rubble.


Calcutta, Sept. 10: 
After schools, it’s IT classes for colleges. Webel, the government’s nodal IT agency, is coordinating and monitoring a move to introduce training in classrooms at the under-graduate level. The higher education department has been entrusted with the responsibility of finalising the curriculum. Carrying its private-partnership-for-progress push forward, the government has decided to involve IT-training majors for the computer-courses-in-colleges plan. A two-year agreement has already been sealed between Tata Infotech Ltd and Webel.

NIIT, which is helping the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government introduce computer literacy in schools, and Globsyn Technologies have also been approached. “Both NIIT and Globsyn, with a lot of experience in this field, have been asked to submit proposals on the best way to teach IT in colleges,” a Webel official confirmed on Monday. Tulika Sinha, zonal manager, NIIT, said: “The college model is different from the school model, where the government is providing the infrastructure.”

The first step has been to shortlist 33 colleges which have “at least some IT infrastructure”. Representatives from Webel and Tata Infotech have visited these colleges and made special presentations to the principals. “To date, we have received confirmation from 10 colleges,” said a senior Webel official. The colleges which should ready be ready to click “after the Pujas” include Loreto, Bethune, Shri Shikshayatan, Ramakrishna Mission Vidyamandir and Scottish Church. Durgapur Government College is also likely to figure in the first batch.

Three types of courses — introductory, intermediate and advanced — have been designed by Tata Infotech. The introductory course will have separate modules like Office 2000, web-publishing, HTML and Internet technologies. The intermediate course will comprise Windows NT, Visual Basic 6, C++, Developer 2000… In the advanced category, courses on latest technologies like XML, Oracle 8i, Corba , e-commerce will be offered. The course fees for various modules will range between Rs 1,350 and Rs 6,600.

The government has asked Webel to pay “special attention” to the standard of teaching and maintaining a “uniform level” in all colleges. “We want to bring the maximum number of colleges under this programme. But the institutions are free to decide whether they are interested in introducing the course,” said the Webel official. He also clarified that the colleges will have to “provide the space and create the infrastructure”. The training module will be monitored by faculties provided by Tata Infotech. “But, we have requested Tata Infotech to provide the necessary infrastructure in case of any bottlenecks,” he added.

Pushpa Misra, principal of Bethune College, welcomed the government move to launch computer courses in colleges. “The student demand for such a course on campus has been building up for quite some time now,” Mishra said. “We have decided to augment the existing infrastructure by adding more computers and redoing the computer centre as early as possible to kick off the courses before the Pujas. The course fees are affordable and the response is satisfactory,” she added.



Blockade cripples traffic

Traffic was disrupted for more than an hour at Garden Reach after members of the Intuc blocked the road on Monday, demanding opening of a closed factory in the area. The blockade was withdrawn after senior police officers rushed to the spot and assured them that they would look into the matter. Commuters were inconvenienced during the peak hour.

Ghat review

The transport subject committee of the Assembly inspected several ferry ghats on Monday. The team, led by committee chairman Sadhan Pandey, will submit the report to the Assembly suggesting measures to improve the ghats.

Power cuts

Power cuts continued for nearly two hours in the BBD Bag area around 7.50 on Monday evening after two CESC transformers tripped following a technical snag near Telephone Bhavan. The snag affected Telephone Bhavan and a portion of Writers’ Buildings. There was no power in the offices of Anandabazar Patrika and The Telegraph for about an hour. Supply was restored around 10 pm.

Metro services

M.C. Srivastava, general manager, Metro Railway, inspected Metro stations, from Esplanade to Tollygunge, and interacted with passengers, who appreciated the reduction in door trouble. Some sought drinking water facilities on the platforms. Others complained about high temperatures at some stations.

Sweepers’ rally

Traffic came to a halt on S.N. Banerjee Road for over two hours after nearly 500 washermen and sweepers rallied in front of Calcutta Municipal Corporation, demanding pension.    

Calcutta, Sept. 10: 
Ashalayam, the dream woven by Father Anthony Thaiparambil, turned real when, in 1985, 14 urchins from Howrah station walked into a rundown shelter built by them under the caring eye of the Father.

A result of hope and dedication, it has come a long way in the past 15 years. Funded by the Provincial House and various other independent sources, it shelters more than 500 children in 18 homes and two night shelters in Pilkhana, Kadamtala, Kalyani and Ichhapur. Gone is the solitary dilapidated shelter in Howrah, Instead, there are buildings housing vocational training centres, infirmaries, dormitory bedrooms, computer rooms and open spaces for sports.

“These boys are as richly endowed with talent, as they are inept in the proper handling of the same. We have singers, dancers, actors…” smiles assistant director Father Dominic Kachira, watching the little ones at play. There are children from Andhra Pradesh and Nepal. What had brought them to Howrah may never be known. What is known is how they’ve turned up in this home of hope. Melas hosted on the last Sunday of every month finds senior boys and volunteers from Ashalayam bringing back kids hoping to make a fresh start.

“Most return to their world, some stay back,” says Fr Anthony, another assistant director. “They are all so used to abuse and insult that they are initially extremely wary of the affection at Ashalayam. Those who stay on, become part of the family.” One look at the cherubic faces and twinkling eyes confirms that. The smiles seem to be Ashalayam’s gift to these kids, struggling to put their sordid pasts behind them. Sagar Roy, abandoned by his mother, will “always remember” the day Uncle Frederick, a volunteer at Ashalayam, spotted him begging at Howrah station. “Uncle came with so many children, all looking so happy, and asked me if I would come with him, I said yes,” recounts the 17-year-old, now busy with his Board exams and then planning to pursue a career in hotel management.

Sagar is no exception. All children at Ashalayam are given the option of books or vocational training. Those who choose the former are sent to schools in the locality. Many then go on to more reputed schools. Nineteen-year-old Tarun, for instance, is now studying at St Xavier’s. Vocational training ranges from screen printing to book-binding, pisciculture to poultry farming, welding to carpentry. Their products find a “ready market” in the state and in other countries like Switzerland, Italy and Germany. Part of the proceeds goes to the institution, while with the rest, the inmates are reimbursed for their labour. The money is put into a savings account in their name. “ We do this to nurture the habit of saving, so they can better manage their finances and their futures,” explains Father Kachira.

As time wears on, they master their skills and save enough to cut the ‘umbilical cord’ and live a disciplined life all on their own. Ashalayam also provides matching grants to help them through the first few years of independence.

Ronu , born to squalor, had made Ashalayam his home. Slowly, yet surely, he learnt the norms of ordered society. Today, he is an accomplished driver, the proud owner of a house, and the head of a happy family.

Ronu is just one of the success stories scripted by Ashalayam. Forty-three inmates of the home have gone to build their own houses and many more are well on their way to doing so. But they all keep in touch with their “first home”, one which gave them a second chance in life.


Calcutta, Sept. 10: 
It’s a small victory for citizens in the battle against realtors. The Corporation has issued a formal notice to the Young Men’s Christian Association of India, to reconstruct the demolished gateway of the Old Bishop’s house at 5, Russell Street. The gate had been destroyed on the night of August 25.

The letter, signed by municipal commissioner Debashis Som, was addressed to the “national general secretary of YMCAs of India” requesting them to “kindly reconstruct the gateway to the original shape and character… within six months”. A copy of the letter was forwarded to the 5, Russell Street Tenants Association on Monday.

Describing the act as “a major blow to the initiative of preservation of heritage structures”, Som writes: “It is regretfully noted that the gate has been demolished without clearance.”

Som asserted in his letter that the “premises and gateway… has been identified as a heritage structure”. The commissioner further stated that “under the West Bengal Town and Country Planning and Development Act, 1979”, permission from the Heritage Conservation Committee is required before any changes are made to a heritage structure. The YMCA has been directed to take up the restoration “in consultation with a heritage architect”.

This is a turnaround in the Corporation’s stand, coming after the mayor’s statement that “no one requires permission to break down a gate” and that “there was no question of re-building it”.

Though the premises is “officially still a YMCA property”, the tenants are now either private residents or offices. “This is just the first step,” said Varguis George, resident since 1949 and member of the 5, Russell Street Tenants Association. “That a criminal act was perpetrated here is being ignored… The CMC has not followed up the FIR they filed initially,” he added.

A gang of “around 50 vandals” destroyed the arched gateway with eight columns, dating back to the 1820s, in the middle of the night. The tenants association is planning “to take the matter to court themselves” as the authorities “have done nothing to bring the perpetrators to book”.


Calcutta, Sept. 10: 
The city police busted a racket engaged in smuggling stolen motorcycles to Bangladesh.

Investigations revealed that hundreds of bikes stolen from Calcutta and the surrounding districts were sent to Bangladesh, across the Indo-Bangladesh border in the past five months. The police to date have picked up 15 persons in connection with the racket.

Deputy commissioner of police, detective department, Somen Mitra said: “This is one of the biggest rackets unearthed in recent times. Four people were arrested today. Several others will be picked up soon.”

Aksad Mollah and Ranjit Ganguly are two among the 15 persons arrested so far. Mollah and Ganguly admitted despatching motorcycles to “receivers” in Bangladesh in the past five months, until their luck ran out last week.

The detective department and the district police found out that bikes stolen from the city were sold to bidders from Bangladesh at Basirhat and Krishnagar, before being smuggled into Bangladesh.

On reaching Bangladesh, the bikes are either modified into a “helicopter” (a name for passenger-carriers) or the motor of the mobike is installed in pumps.

During interrogation, the arrested persons confessed to sneaking through the porous border at Majdia and Khalberia outposts along the Indo-Bangladesh border under cover of darkness. “The Mollah-Ganguly duo has smuggled about 500 stolen motorcycles to Bangladesh,” said a detective department official.

Investigation revealed that motorcycles stolen from the city are first sent to the bordering towns for a facelift, before the formal bidding takes place.

The colour and licence plate are changed before they are handed over to the “receivers for smuggling them out of the country, the official said. The motorcycle thieves receive commissions for each deal, he added.

Apart from Mollah and Ganguly, the police also picked up Bapi and Dipbendu Saha of Majdia for being part of a syndicate involved in smuggling motorcycles to towns on the Bangladesh border. Further investigation is on to trace the others involved.


Calcutta, Sept. 10: 
If the consumer affairs department’s raids against traders cheating customers is any indication, Calcutta — and its fishmongers — have topped the rogue-trader list in West Bengal.

The city accounts for much more than half of the unscrupulous traders the raids yielded in south Bengal. Such raids continued through August. “An overwhelming percentage of the traders caught red-handed while cheating customers was from Calcutta,” consumer affairs department minister Naren De said at Writers’ Buildings on Monday.

The market at Shyambazar topped the list. As many as 18 traders there had faulty scales or measuring rods. Closely following Shyambazar on the blacklist was the Orphangunge Bazar at Kidderpore with 15 cheats among the traders. Also ranking high on the list were traders of Jadu Babur Bazar in Bhowanipore (12 errant traders) and the markets at Park Circus and Maniktala (11 each).

Raids at most of the other markets in the city – Entally, Cossipore, Bidhannagar, Bagri Market, Burrabazar, Sovabazar and Behala – yielded their share of rogue-traders.

The Bengali favourite — fish — was found to have betrayed buyers the most. Around one-third of the total number of 197 rougue-traders caught and penalised were fishmongers.

“Cheats were found among all sections of traders,” the minister said. “There were cheats among jewellers and cloth-merchants though the heaviest contributors to the list were those selling fish. They were followed by traders selling grocery and food-items,” he added.

The city markets brought the department Rs 1.35 lakh as revenue. The consumer affairs department has set itself a target of collecting Rs 12 lakh in fines by the end of the financial year ending in March 2002; to date its collection stands at Rs 4.32 lakh.

De, however, admitted only fines and penal action would not be enough to deal with errant traders.

“Traders have to understand that it is their responsibility to ensure that their customers return to them,” he added.

Memorial: A condolence meet in memory of film director Asit Sen will be held at New Theatres Studio no. 1 on Tuesday at 6 pm. It is being organised by Eastern India Film Directors Association.


Calcutta, Sept. 10: 
Patients suffering from diphtheria are facing serious problems as the only hospital for infectious diseases in the city at Beleghata is running short of medicine. There are presently 27 patients in the hospital. A patient, who came from North Bengal, died last week.

Dr Sukumar Das, superintendent of the Beleghata ID Hospital, however, said Calcuttans need not worry as most of the cases had been referred from the districts.

According to him, there is “absolutely no stock” of anti-diphtheria serum, needed to treat the disease. But he is hopeful that stocks will arrive within a day or two. The ID hospital in Delhi is expected to send at least one lakh ampules. This apart, an SOS has been sent to infectious diseases hospitals in other states.

Health minister Surya Kanta Mishra said his department might import medicines if the situation so demanded. The ID hospital authorities are using antibiotic medicines in absence of the serum.

Dr Das said production of the serum had been slashed as the manufacturers do not find this business profitable any longer.


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