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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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SMOKY FUTURE

A fire or two causing serious damage to life and property is a monthly feature in Calcutta. So commonplace are such incidents that it is easy to discern a pattern in their unfolding. The firefighters — mostly middle-aged, unfit, and equipped with gadgets that belong to a museum — arrive on the scene usually after the damage is done. Shortly afterwards, dignitaries troop in to inspect the scale of devastation. After routine expressions of condolence, these public servants make a clean exit, hoping that collective amnesia will run its course. Finally, those who are affected by the fire return, or rather resign themselves, to a life of danger and dread. The fire that broke out in a high-rise on Central Avenue on Saturday is set to follow this hallowed pattern as well. The residents, shaken by fear, have voiced their fury at the callousness of the building’s owner, who hoarded inflammable objects on the premises. But as with the Stephen Court incident last year, it is unlikely that their protector, the State, will do very much to make their lives more secure.

The people’s helplessness in the face of such administrative indifference is ironic in West Bengal, which boasts of a fire minister. In the last few weeks alone, Calcutta has witnessed a number of fires that could have been quickly brought under control or avoided altogether had the fire department done some smart thinking. The blaze that engulfed a cold storage in Maniktala after an incident of ammonia gas leak was unwarranted. Officials should have anticipated the danger after the leak and sealed the area with greater agility. But armed with two gas masks and bulky fire engines that could not enter the narrow lanes, the men in uniform were more of a liability than of any real help. As debates over the issuing of fire licence for all businesses stretch on interminably, civil society has no reason to silently suffer. The latter must be more proactive about making residences secure by adopting basic fire-safety norms.

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