The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Tempers aflame over apathy
- Shopowners try to salvage goods, turned away by cops and firemen

“More than 36 hours have passed since the first fire engine arrived here. But still you can see a dark smokescreen around. It only reflects the apathy of the authorities and inefficiency of the fire-fighters. Some politicians came, too, but did nothing except pose for the cameras.”

With the mercury touching 36 degree Celsius on Wednesday and the flames refusing to die down under Satyanarayan Park, tempers ran high in Burrabazar. Politicians, police, mediapersons and fire-fighters were all singed by the screams of devastated shopowners.

“We didn’t go back home last night. While the fire-fighters and the police were busy sleeping, we were trying our best to douse the fire,” said Rakesh Banthia, eyes swollen, hair dishevelled. “After the nightlong effort, things started looking up around dawn, and at around 6 am, some of us entered the market from Burtolla Street. We could make out that some shops were intact, but when we tried to bring out the undamaged stuff, the police forced us out of the market,” alleged the man, who was busy selling branded shirts, trousers and T-shirts till late on Monday.

Like most traders in the underground market, Banthia hadn’t insured his shop, but he was convinced that it was unscathed till 6 am. “But we don’t know what they did after that. They (the firemen) are continuously spraying water, but the situation is just getting worse,” said the traders, asking why the fire minister had not visited the spot and what stopped the government from calling in the army.

On Wednesday afternoon, all of Burrabazar seemed to be milling around Satyanarayan Park. Most shops were closed to express solidarity with the traders of the underground market. Kalakar Street, the arterial road linking M.G. Road and Strand Road, was packed and people even lined the balconies of Jain Bhavan and Jain Dharamshala to catch a glimpse of the fire-fighting exercise. Every time a camera was trained on the tragedy or an ‘outsider’ entered the disaster zone, a cry of outrage would rise from the ranks. Satyanarayan Bajaj, Trinamul Congress MLA, bore the brunt of the mob fury.

But if there was frustration, there was fellow feeling, too. The Agarwal brothers — owners of a PCO at 73, Burtolla Street — allowed free phone facilities through the day. Narendra Joshi, a local resident, took the lead in organising food for the fire-fighters and the shopowners from the same building, at the rear of the market. “For the moment, we are struggling to arrange for the basics, but after some time, it will be business as usual here,” assured Joshi.

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