|(Top) Firefighters remove shades to make way for the engine during the mock test at Pucca Bazaar in Asansol, where mayor Tapas Banerjee (above) was gheraoed by traders on Friday.
Pictures by Aparna Chatterjee
Asansol, March 1: Traders at an Asansol market today gheraoed and detained the mayor and fire brigade officials for an hour when they went to inspect fire-safety measures in the wake of the blaze at Calcutta’s Surya Sen Market on Wednesday.
The traders alleged that every time a big fire takes place in Calcutta, the authorities in Asansol begin inspection drives but “nothing happens thereafter” to bring to book those market owners who violate fire-safety norms.
Fire officials, however, said a section of traders who had built shops flouting rules tried to “foil” the inspection.
“Why have you come here again to stage a drama in the name of inspection when you will do nothing to ensure fire-safety rules. Every time a big fire breaks out in Calcutta or elsewhere, you people visit the markets here for inspections. But, there are no follow-ups and you forget all about it. We are not fools. Why are you affecting our business by creating a ruckus?” said Rezaul Islam, a hardware shop owner at Pucca Bazaar.
Mayor Tapas Banerjee, fire official Selim Javed and about a dozen officials had gone to the four-decade-old market for a surprise inspection around 11am. The officials had brought a fire engine to find out whether the entrance to the market was wide enough for evacuation during a blaze. But as the street to the market has become narrow with encroachment, the fire engine could not proceed.
As the fire fighters and civic body employees started demolishing the makeshift constructions and corrugated shades that blocked the entry of the fire engine, the traders at Pucca Bazaar became angry and pushed the mayor.
“We are now busy with customers but the mayor and his team are trying to spoil our business. It is not as if the shops came up yesterday. Why were steps not taken earlier? The fire officials and the mayor last visited our market after the fire at AMRI Hospitals in 2011. After that they disappeared and no steps were taken to find out whether there was any violation of fire-safety rules,” said Mohammad Niaz, who runs a chicken shop at the market that blocks most of the street.
An official said Pucca Bazaar did not have an underground water reservoir, hosepipes and automatic water sprinklers. The alleys and staircases are narrow and inadequate exits.
A fire services official said most of the private markets in Asansol were operating without proper fire-safety measures. He said old electrical wiring increased the possibility of short circuit.
In Asansol town, the civic body runs only four markets. In the early 1980s, several private markets such as Pucca Bazaar, AC Market, Super Market, Jalan Market, Gupta Market, Auto Market and Fancy Market came up along GT Road. The markets mostly operate from private buildings. Shops have mushroomed illegally over the years, making them congested.
A municipality official said: “We regularly carry out inspections with the help of fire officials and police. But the shop owners do not follow our instructions. Today, they disrupted our drive to escape punishment.”
Mayor Banerjee said the municipality only issued trade licenses to the traders and the fire department would have to look after safety measures.
“We have repeatedly told the traders and the local chambers of commerce to install safety measures but they do not pay any heed,” he said.
The police rescued the mayor and the fire officials around noon and the drive was stopped for the day.
Fire official Javed admitted that private markets were running without fire licences. “We advise the shopkeepers to maintain proper fire-safety measures but they do not listen to us,” he said. Javed refused comment when asked why he did not close down the markets running without fire license.
Asansol Bazaar Byabsai Samiti president Ram Avtar Chokhani said the traders were angry as the inspection was started without informing them.