The 19 charred bodies of Wednesday prompted Mamata Banerjee to summon mayor Sovan Chatterjee and municipal affairs minister Firhad Hakim to her Kalighat home on Thursday morning and tell them to launch Operation Illegal Building.
A source said the chief minister was “upset” over the Calcutta Municipal Corporation’s failure to curb illegal constructions such as the mezzanine floor of the market complex near Sealdah station that turned death trap for 19 of those sleeping there early on Wednesday.
“She told them that fire tragedies caused by negligence were unacceptable but were occurring repeatedly. She asked them to act tough and ensure that fire-safety measures were taken in all buildings,” a Trinamul leader said.
Mayor Chatterjee pleaded that his hands were tied, at which Mamata suggested that the relevant law be amended so that the civic body had the power to force the owners of unsafe buildings to fall in line.
“If there is no provision in the law to take steps against the owners of such buildings, amend the law. You must ensure at any cost that people do not burn to death,” the source quoted Mamata as saying.
What Mamata meant was an amendment to the Calcutta Municipal Corporation Act of 1980, which does not have any provision for penal action for flouting safety norms.
“The owners of these buildings must install fire-safety measures within a specific timeframe. If they fail to do so, then any such building should be locked. Amend the law and give the CMC the power to take strong action,” the CM apparently said.
“We will only believe it when we see it,” scoffed a senior police officer. By “it” he meant action on the ground against illegal buildings.
“For the past year we have been trying to convince the Trinamul leadership that illegal constructions create death traps where tragedies are just waiting to happen. But whenever we have tried to take any action, a phone call from some Trinamul leader or the other has stopped us,” said the cop.
Lalbazar has prepared a full dossier on illegal buildings in some pockets of the city but little police action has been allowed because of political interference. It remains to be seen if the Surya Sen market tragedy will change that.
Mamata on Thursday called for a drive not only against tinderbox buildings but also structures deemed unsafe in other ways. She asked the mayor to come up with a status report on the condition of markets in the city within a fortnight. “Let me submit the report. This is the first task. The municipal commissioner will be in charge of the committee,” Chatterjee said later.
In Calcutta, this is a somewhat vicious cycle: tough talk after every disaster followed by a shut-eye till the next tragedy occurs.
Teams comprising officials of the CMC, CESC, the police and fire services had been formed after the fire at Stephen Court in 2010 that killed 43 people and then the one at AMRI Dhakuria in 2011, in which 92 people died, to identify tinderbox buildings and ensure safety measures were implemented there.
A CPM councillor questioned the progress made by the committee formed after the AMRI tragedy during a routine monthly meeting of the CMC on Thursday. “It’s been over a year since the fire at AMRI. We still haven’t been informed what steps this committee has taken to reduce the risk of fire in such unsafe buildings,” he said.
“Around 33 buildings had been categorised unsafe in the aftermath of the AMRI fire. Thirteen of those haven’t taken proper safety measures yet and the fire brigade has withheld their no-objection certificates, which is mandatory for renewal of trade licences,” mayor Chatterjee responded.
What he didn’t say is that the shop owners in these buildings continue to do business. “The CMC does not have the power to prevent a shop from doing business even if it does not adhere to fire-safety recommendations. We can only give trade licences. Even if we don’t, the shops will run,” a CMC official said.
At 35 APC Road, the building that caught fire early on Wednesday, a mezzanine floor with poor ventilation and a single, narrow staircase connecting it to the ground floor was where all 19 victims died.
Mayor Chatterjee declined to spell out how the CMC planned to act against the owners of the building. “We will first come up with a report on the building within three days,” he said.