A mangle of high-voltage wires poses serious threat to the Bharatiya Yuvak Sangh pandal at Bakri Bazaar in Ranchi on Thursday. Picture by Prashant Mitra
Show first, safety last is the venturesome motto of Durga Puja organisers in and around Ranchi.
While purse strings are being generously loosened for theme pandals and spectacular illumination, the fervour is less than frugal when it comes to fire preparedness.
If the fire department is to be believed, only one out of 130-odd pandals in the capital has sought the mandatory NOC, which is given after a fire survey and crisis crash course to Puja committee volunteers.
On October 7, the district administration had asked the fire department to deploy adequate men and machine at all prominent pandals in the city to tackle emergencies, if any. In response, the department had contended that it was practically impossible without co-operation of organisers.
“We are ready to give volunteers free training on fire safety, but Puja committees need to assemble manpower and fire gear. A fast-track NOC will be given if our safety suggestions are adopted,” the letter from the department to the subdivisional magistrate, senior superintendent of police and deputy commissioner said.
But, Puja organisers seem to find ignorance bliss, even if it means playing with fire. “Till date, only Maitri Durga Puja Samiti in Doranda has approached us for fire safety guidance,” said R.K. Thakur of Audrey House fire station. The pandal will be fire-safe in two days, he added.
Several crowd-magnet pandals fall under the jurisdiction of this fire station. These include Bharatiya Yuvak Sangh puja at Bakri Bazaar, Rajasthan Mitra Mandal near Seva Sadan, Bihar Club in Kutchery and Durga Puja Committee on Main Road. None have a fire NOC.
To make things scarier, many of these pandals do not have wide approach roads. The sprawling ground hosting the Bakri Bazaar pandal is connected by congested Upper Bazaar roads, which can prove a deterrent in rescue operations.
Thakur said the department, on its part, was prepared to handle exigencies. Four fire tenders will be stationed at the police control room in Kutchery, Albert Ekka Chowk and Sadar and Jagannathpur police stations. “Roughly, 80 firefighters will ensure that the Puja is celebrated without any untoward incident,” he said.
He maintained that their letter to the district administration also included dos and don’ts on pandal safety. “For instance, pandals should be made of non-inflammable material or the fabric should be treated with fire-retardant chemicals; halogens should be installed at least a metre away from pandals; and there should be ample room inside pandals, besides wide entries and exits,” he said.
Despite flagrant and visible violations of safety guidelines, Puja organisers claimed they were not compromising on fire preparedness. “Around two dozen fire extinguishers, sand buckets and adequate volunteers will be available for a safe Puja. We will soon call fire officials for more help,” promised Hemendra Singh, the president of Satya Amarlok Puja Samiti in Harmu.
An official of a Puja committee at Kutchery said they were arranging for fire extinguishers, sand buckets and two water tankers.
The pandal on Bangla School campus in OCC Compound is an 80ft structure made of inflammable cotton wool — a potential towering inferno.
But, a senior member of the committee, Sukhbeer Singh, claimed the pandal was safe. “If cotton catches fire, it won’t spread. Besides, there is an apartment nearby, which will provide us with water supply. We have also requested Daily Market police station to deploy men for crowd management,” he said vaguely.
PS: If you are caught in one of these tinderbox pandals, pray for divine intervention.
Will you visit a pandal that is a potential tinderbox?