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Puja pandals scurry to reap benefits of blaze cover

A handful of puja committees in the city this year took a giant leap forward by opting for ‘third-party insurance’ during the four days, beginning Sashthi. What it means is that for a reasonable premium, the organisers ensure that if a visitor suffers a disability, or god forbid loses his life, at the pandal during this period, a compensation up to a fixed sum is paid by the insurance company.

Ballygunge Cultural Association, on Jatin Das Road, for example, took an insurance cover from a private insurance company. Its pandal was insured against fire for Rs 3 lakh and, in addition, there was a third-party insurance, with the premium coming to a reasonable Rs 1,000 or so.

The cover, which promises to get more popular in the next few years, also ensures an independent inspection of the facilities put up for the puja. The insurance company is obviously going to make sure that safety standards are met and chances of an electrical short-circuit are either eliminated or reduced greatly.

Similarly, the company, in its own interest, is going to insist that crowd-management improves and chances of a stampede are minimised. Will the insurance cover terrorist strikes as well, asked a colleague. Given the trend, it will not come as a surprise if it does, at a little higher cost to the organisers.

A visit across a dozen and more puja pandals, spread across north and south Calcutta, confirmed a heightened awareness of fire hazards. Most pandals appeared to have made provisions for a standby supply of both water and sand, besides hiring fire-extinguishers. An increasing number of them are also hiring private firms to spray fire-retardant chemicals on the elaborate structures. But not much thought appeared to have gone into the placement of the extinguishers, leaving a nagging doubt that if a fire does break out, at several places volunteers could find it difficult to gain access to them and, thereby, lose precious time.

Several of the bigger puja committees, however, appeared indifferent to their own responsibility in managing traffic and crowd. “It’s the job of the police,” office-bearers said laconically. The only primitive way of shepherding the visitors appeared to be the use of a long rope, which would be held together to periodically stop the crowd from moving forward, allowing visitors already in the pandal to come out first. The ‘exit’ points at many pandals did not appear wide enough and no conscious effort appeared to have been made to allow only double-file entry and exit from the pandals.

They also appeared indifferent to litter. Organisers of an aesthetically-built exquisite pandal were themselves carelessly tossing plastic cups after emptying the contents. Cigarettes, water bottles, food packets, ice-cream cups and paper packets were strewn quite brazenly with organisers arguing that the municipal corporation, after all, is paid to clean up the rubbish.

The visit also demonstrated that although the tourism department pays lip-service every year to promoting the ‘Puja’, there is virtually no attempt by the department to even get in touch with the various puja committees. Most of them appeared surprised when asked if the department had ever got in touch with them. They had to take permission from the police, from the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC), from the fire department and, of course, the power suppliers… But the tourism department, no sir!

Not surprisingly, they were all unanimous in stating that ‘foreign tourists’, who are virtually the only ones that the tourism department appears to be cultivating, are rare. Even more rare, one suspects, are the domestic tourists from other states, barring those who have close friends or relatives living in and around the city.

A significant number of puja committees, however, appear to be in a position to host tourists and put them up with members. What is needed is just a catalytic agent to set the ball rolling. Most visitors from outside are frightened at the thought of coping with puja crowds all by themselves. The idea of a strange place, complex traffic regulations, no place to park and the ceaseless stream of people force most people to put off a visit to the city during the Puja. Putting them up as guests with local residents can be more effective and reassuring.

There is also evidence that organisers are increasingly setting aside a part of the budget for helping out people in the community. Feeding the poor, marshalling the orphans and the destitute and escorting them to different pandals in the city, funding an open-heart surgery of a youngster in the neighbourhood, etc, are some of the activities they are getting into.

Even on a more mundane plane, there were organisers who decided to forward a bulk of the fruits, purchased or received as offering, to the neighbourhood hospital for patients.

Yet, the CESC is learnt to have lodged as many as 278 FIRs this year for power theft by puja committees. The CMC claimed to have cleared as many as 250 trucks of felled trees and branches in the days preceding the Pujas. But the silver lining is visible all right. Organisers of a puja in north Calcutta actually abandoned plans for elaborate lighting after realising that the sanctioned load would not be able to cope with it.

Thanks to television, the extraordinary spectacle of the Pujas is coming alive in our drawing rooms. But the ‘real’ thing is, of course, far more heady and exhilarating.

Is it too far-fetched to dream of a Puja Gram where the best pandals and the idols are preserved and displayed for the next 12 months, when select pandals from next year’s Pujas can replace them' The exhibition could well be christened “ Creativity in transit”.

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