| A shop-owner dials distress signals as smoke billows from the Satyanarayan Park AC Market on Tuesday morning. Picture by Pabitra Das
“It’s like watching a loved one being cremated. The fire has robbed us of everything.” A shop-owner, standing at the southern end of Satyanarayan Park, watching in horror his livelihood going up in smoke.
There was a time, not so long ago, when this park in the heart of Burrabazar was where the local Marwaris would flock to feed the pigeons. A lot has changed under the park, which, till Monday night, housed more than 300 shops and held out a lifeline for thousands.
On Tuesday morning, they were nearly all there. No longer flocking at leisure to feed the pigeons, but desperately rushing to salvage their lives from down under. “Every night before we left our shops, we would check whether the diyas had been doused. Monday night was no different… How could this happen'” demanded a shopkeeper, distraught at the devastation.
It may take a long time to establish, if at all, the actual extent of the damage to the garments and gift items in the Satyanarayan Park AC Market. But initial estimates pegged the loss of inventory at “no less than Rs 100 crore”. Even if the fire spared some shops, the fumes and the flooding would certainly consume their stock, feared shop-owners.
The 15-year-old underground market turned over goods worth Rs 40-50 lakh every day. Space in the shopping mall was priced at Rs 14,000 per sq ft, on lease for 31 years. Even a 70-sq-ft shop in the market would cost close to Rs 10 lakh. To put this in perspective, commercial space in 22, Camac Street — Calcutta’s retail capital, housing Pantaloons, Westside, Pizza Hut and other fun stops — is currently priced at around Rs 4,000 per sq ft.
The Satyanarayan Park market was, till Monday night, the one-stop shopping mall for most of north Calcutta and even Howrah. Thousands would throng the 20,000-sq-ft market every afternoon.
“True-blue Marwaris invariably go back to Burrabazar when it comes to shopping. I keep going back to the two shops at Satyanarayan Park I have been visiting since my teenage days. Apart from a sense of belonging, this is the only market where even branded goods are sold to loyal customers at a healthy discount,” says Manish Pareek, who grew up in Burrabazar, has now shifted to Alipore, but continues to share a special bond with the plaza under the park.
Not everything was bought for personal consumption; the market fed a large number of small neighbourhood stores in Howrah and pockets of north Calcutta. The Tuesday morning blaze might well be the end of the road for a large number of shop-owners. Most of them would have already lost substantial sums in the stock market crash and badla (financing deals with stockbrokers).
“The loss in badla was a heavy blow, but the fire is a killer,” lamented a shop-owner, who said he had stacked up goods worth Rs 7 lakh in his 64-sq-ft shop.
Hardly any shop-owner had comprehensive insurance cover. “We now realise that we should have insured our shops, but it never occurred to us that we needed to. Even those who had some coverage don’t know how much they can recover from insurance claims,” said some shop-owners.
The lone glimmer of hope was held out by promoter Pawan Kajaria, who at an evening emergency meeting’ at Jain Dharamshala, facing the park, promised to “rebuild the market at no extra cost to the shop-owners”.