Shower power halts city
Misery at Metropolitan
Sea fish scarce and dear, fries off the menu

A norwester with windspeed of 111 kmph ripped through Calcutta on Monday evening, disrupting power supply, train services and flight schedules, snapping overhead wires and uprooting trees.

Chief minister Jyoti Basu, too, was not spared. His Delhi-bound Airbus was delayed by half an hour because of �inclement weather�. The main runway at the city airport was closed to traffic for two hours in the evening.

The temperature dipped 12.6 degrees from 32.8 degrees Celsius, bringing relief to Calcuttans from the scorching April sun. Alipore met office director R.N. Goldar said the city experienced 18.5 mm of rainfall during the storm.

The skies began to darken around 3.30 pm and by 4.15, darkness had descended, with shops and buildings switching on lights. Then came the torrential rain.

Nearly 400 trees were uprooted, most of them on the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass between the Park Circus connector and Garia.

Fallen trees caused traffic snarls at Gariahat, Taltala, Rashbehari Avenue, D.L. Khan Road, Harish Mukherjee Road, S.P. Mukherjee Road, Behala, Thakurpukur and Garia.

In many areas, overhead electric wires snapped. To compound matters, the CESC�s Budge Budge plant tripped around 4.20 pm after developing a snag. The shortfall in the CESC-served areas shot up to a staggering 260 mw by 4.30 pm.

�The people switched on their lights earlier than usual and we were suddenly burdened with a massive demand of over 1,000 mw,� a senior CESC official said.

The situation worsened as faults appeared at three sub-stations in south Calcutta, Belur and Prinsep Street. The state electricity board came to the rescue and supplied around 320 mw to the CESC system, bringing down the deficit by late evening.

Large areas of the city remained dark well into the evening even though the Budge Budge unit was brought back on stream a little before 6.30 pm and picked up generation later.

CESC sources said their plants continued to face acute scarcity of coal. The power department has taken up CESC�s case with Eastern Coalfields, the BCCL and the railways.

At the southern generating station in Garden Reach, there�s only a day�s stock of coal left. The Titagarh power station has coal to last it three days, while Budge Budge has five days� stock.

Train services on Eastern Railway�s Sealdah division were disrupted from 4.20 pm to 6.45 pm due to failure of power supply and branches falling on overhead wires.

Services on both the Howrah-Burdwan chord and main line sections were hit following failure of overhead power supply by the state electricity board from the Liluah grid between 4.40 pm and 5.35 pm.    

Life in the 100-year-old Metropolitan Building is proving to be a never-ending nightmare for its 300-odd residents.

The imposing �heritage building� at Chowringhee has no electricity, no water for one week now.

And the lifts, in the five-storeyed building which is being given a fresh coat of paint, are also not in operation.

The cause of the misery at the Metropolitan: theft of a cable that runs through an electrical installation inside the building, on April 18.

The same evening, the CESC inspection team informed the residents of the building, owned by the Life Insurance Corporation of India (LICI), that �it was a cable fault as there was no problem at the supply end.�

Nothing has been done to restore electric supply to the building ever since. On Monday, R.D.Sharma, secretary, Metropolitan Building Tenants Society, said: �Since April 18 we have met various officers of LICI, but to no avail. If this continues for one more day, we will go mad.�

An elderly lady teacher who has lived in the building for the past 33 years added: �I have to pay Rs 10 for a bucket of water as the pump is not working. And from the evening, there is nothing to do but wait in the dark.�

The building has been under LICI control ever since it bought Metropolitan Insurance in 1956. It has about 28 flats, comprising 60 rooms, three lifts and five staircases.

It houses the Cottage Industries Emporium, the Cauvery (arts and crafts showroom of Karnataka), the exhibition and sales room of Birla Corporation, the Metropolitan Photographic store, and several individual tenants.

A.K. Ghatak, assistant general manager of Central Cottage Industries Emporium, said: �We are suffering a loss of Rs 1 lakh daily, as we cannot attend to our customers.�

�This situation almost seems unreal, as if we are back in the Dark Ages. How long can we carry on like this?� demanded an official at Cauvery.

R.D. Sharma, 72, has not been able to leave his third-floor flat for days. �I live with my two sons, their wives and children. But due to the horrible situation here, I have sent them over to a relative�s place,� he said.

An LICI official, when contacted on Monday evening, said: �It will take time to restore power in that building. As it is a technical problem, we cannot say how much time it will take.�

But for the residents of Metropolitan Building, patience, if not time, is fast running out.    

Several restaurants in the city have been forced to drop that perennial favourite, the fish fry, from their menu because sea fish has made the disappearing act from markets. In the past, there have been lean seasons, but restaurants, somehow, managed to procure enough.

This year, sea fish has vanished from the markets. Restaurants, hotels and households, too, are facing this shortage. Neither for money, nor for love, can pomfret and bekti, sea hilsa, sardines and large prawns be procured.

�There is a fall in supplies around this time of the year and prices shoot,� said Prasanta Mukherjee of Regent Restaurant, near New Market. �We try to satisfy customers and buy the fish. But this year, that�s not possible.�

Atanu Ghosh of National Cafeteria, in central Calcutta, has dropped fish items from its menu. �Supplies of sea fish have dropped remarkably, and we can�t increase the price of items. So it��s better to stop selling them,� he says.

Usually, 1.5 lakh tonnes of sea fish comes to city markets daily. During the lean season, the supply drops to 2,000 to 2,500 tonnes. Prices, too, fluctuate. Usually, hilsa costs Rs 60 a kg, pomfret is Rs 100 a kg, Bhola bekti Rs 40 a kg, and bekti Rs 90 a kg.

But when they are scarce, the price of hilsa shoots to Rs 150, bhola sells for Rs 60 a kg, and bekti goes for Rs 125. Prawns are sold at Rs 400 a kg.

About 120 varieties of sea fish are usually available. Among them are mackerel, lotey or Bombay duck, catfish, tuna, Bhola, bhangor, Indian salmon, and the delicious crab. But no longer.

Several factors are responsible for this severe scarcity. To begin with, this is not the fishing season, which is between June and October, and November and February.

Moreover, both exports and fish piracy on the high seas have increased. Superintendent of police, South 24-Parganas, A.K. Maliwal, says: �These pirates could be tackled if locals and political parties help us. Border guards, too, should be more vigilant.�

Harekrishna Debnath, chairperson of the National Fishworkers� Forum, said: �Since the West is willing to pay any price, it has deprived local markets of sea fish.

�It has also made the Indian Ocean a very alarming zone. Foreign trawlers encroach all the year round, and they do not bother about maritime restrictions. Both the fishermen and fishing are suffering because of the government�s apathy.�

Debnath added: �In 1998-99, at least 50 fishermen either died or were missing. They were either casualties of natural calamity or piracy.�

About five lakh people in the state are dependent on fishing. They use 2,500 mechanised boats, 300 trawlers and about 15 special �purse� nets.

Hilsa, prawn, crabs and bekti head straight for the US, France, Spain, UK, Japan, West Asia and Portugal. The governmentt earns around Rs 300 crore annually by exporting about 30,000 tonnes sea fish.    


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