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Chandni traders defy fire-safety norms

“Fire extinguisher? Who has the time to install one?”

These are the words of a trader at Chandni Chowk Market just a day after a fire damaged six shops and reduced goods worth lakhs of rupees to ashes.

Since 1995, when a blaze wiped out almost the entire northern wing, the city’s favourite shopping destination for cheap hardware, electronic goods and household knick-knacks has survived several “small fires” and led traders to believe that it can’t get any worse than what they have already “handled”.

On Wednesday afternoon, a team from Metro elbowed and jostled its way through the narrow passageways of the market for a check and came back convinced that the traders need more than just luck and gumption to cheat disaster time and again.

Electric wires hanging loose, encroached entry and exit points and the absence of a centralised fire-fighting mechanism mean Chandni Chowk Market is just as vulnerable to fire as a Nandaram or a Readymade Centre.

“The Fire and Emergency Services headquarters is very close to the market, though that won’t be of much help in the event of a big blaze. The combustible items stocked in the market will help the flames to spread in no time,” divisional fire officer Uday Adhikary said.

Most of the traders appeared not only nonchalant about fire hazards but ignorant, too. “People here are so busy carrying out business that nobody takes the initiative (to put fire safety measures in place),” said the owner of Parijat Traders, which sells naphthalene balls.

The 75-sq-ft shop is crammed with goods, but does not have a fire extinguisher.

Some traders said they could themselves control a blaze by being alert. “There has only been one big fire in the history of the market. Small incidents are tackled by the shop-owners. We are a very active bunch,” said Amit Kapoor, the owner of Karan Sales Agency.

The almost century-old market has more than 250 shops and nine entry and exit points, each not more than five feet wide. The narrow passageways become narrower still when shop-owners display their goods outside the shutters. The booming market for pirated CDs has added to congestion on the road in front of the market.

“Hawkers have encroached on every inch of available space and made evacuation more difficult, if not impossible, in the event of a fire breaking out or any other calamity. It is very difficult to move in or out of the market in the evening, when the footfall increases,” said shopper Sourav Sil, pointing towards the congestion in front of one of the exits that lead to Haji Restaurant.

The civic authorities recently decided to make it mandatory for all traders to get a fire licence or a no-objection certificate from the fire services department before applying for a trade permit or renewal of an old one.

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