Certain episodes are unforgettable because they are enactments of unbearable agony, horror and suffering. This alone would have marked out the Stephen Court fire in the memories of Calcuttans. But woven in with the memory is also the knowledge that the tragedy need not have taken place at all. And that even after the fire began, many lives could have been saved had the fire services been up to the mark. The Stephen Court fire and its consequences are the result of a series of critical failures that began with the ‘regularization’ of the illegal addition of floors on top of the original building. Regularization is a loophole in the building law, which permits additions outside the legally sanctioned plan with the payment of a fine. Stephen Court is in the exalted company of numerous structures either wholly or partially illegal, including the Nandaram Market, which burnt for 100 hours in 2008.
But illegal building is defined as such because of the dangers it poses. Paying a fine does not remove the dangers; it merely feeds the vested interests of house-owners, promoters and the politicians and officials they are close to. Something can yet be salvaged from the Stephen Court tragedy if the state government and the municipal corporation at last decide to override all other interests for the sake of the safety and health of the citizens. This could become a turning point if the administration began to demolish all forbidden structures, prohibit new ones, and ensure basic fire-safety measures for all multi-storeyed and old buildings. Using the law as an excuse, as the mayor of Calcutta has been doing with his usual slippery expertise, will not do. The law can be reviewed and amended. But again, that should not be a fresh pretext for stalling action. Just as the new committees and commissions of inquiry being formed should not be used to stuff the question of people’s life and death back into the closet. Cleaning up should begin immediately. It can be done; it only needs determination and the will to good.
That will is all-important. An illegal structure that the Supreme Court ordered to be demolished in 1996 is still standing. So are the illegal sections of Nandaram Market, ordered to be demolished 23 years ago. In the case of Stephen Court, the story is slightly different. The civic authorities want to demolish the damaged floors because of the danger they pose, but the Calcutta High Court originally ordered a stay on the basis of a petition from some residents. In a modified order, after the Calcutta Municipal Corporation explained its reasons, the court has not stopped the demolition but has deferred it. It was indeed a strange situation where a court could actually contemplate staying the demolition of an illegal structure. This entire painful predicament need never have arisen if everyone was in the habit of abiding by the law and safety regulations in the first place.