The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Mystery hand in mischief blaze
Arson whiff smothers accident cry

At the end of the day, there is hardly any disagreement that the fire at Dunlop’s marketing office, on Free School Street, is a “possible act of sabotage”.

But this still does not remove any of the mystery surrounding the early-morning blaze that destroyed the building.

Earlier, while the police, the civic authorities and the fire brigade were pushing the sabotage angle, Dunlop’s senior executives in Calcutta were insisting the blaze was “an accident”.

Only later, on Thursday evening, did Dunlop’s office in Mumbai concede that it could be an act of sabotage.

But firemen remained baffled by several aspects of the dawn blaze.

The first, and most important aspect, according to them, is why the fire did not get noticed till five in the morning, when by all estimates — given the extent of the damage when the firemen reached the spot — it had started a good five hours earlier.

Initially, people of the area and even some Dunlop officials said that the building was locked and the doors and windows were shut, which is why the blaze had escaped the notice of the people.

In fact, it was not residents of the area who informed the fire brigade about the blaze, but a newspaper hawker who saw it while on his rounds.

“We are extremely surprised that no one noticed the fire before it was too late to save the building,” said fire brigade director Baren Sen.

“There must have been some sound or smoke from the burning building,” he reasoned.

The next question, for which there seems to be no apparent answer, is: how did the fire start'

The most common cause of an accidental fire, an electrical short-circuit, has been ruled out. The reason: the power lines to the building had been disconnected a long time ago.

The building has been in disuse for at least the past four years and is now used as a storehouse. No one either works or lives in the building.

“The electric supply has been disconnected, the airconditioners have been removed and no one was staying overnight in the building. So, there is no question of a lighted match or a cigarette stub being thrown around carelessly,” Sen said, after an inspection of the building. “This fire is a mystery.”

This takes us to the next baffling aspect of the case. If it was not an accidental fire, then who started it' And why'

The Dunlop management said: “It could be the handiwork of some miscreants and disgruntled elements. (We) will approach the Calcutta Police for a thorough investigation into the incident.” But there is no hint of who these “disgruntled elements” could be.

Deputy commissioner (headquarters) K.L. Tamta has registered a case of “criminal conspiracy” and dubbed it an “act of mischief”. But he is not willing to venture beyond this.

“A team of forensic experts visited the spot in the evening and collected some material,” Tamta said.

“Once the debris has been removed and the samples have been examined, we will get a clearer picture. Meanwhile, we shall examine all aspects of the case, speak to the management and the employees and figure out who these ‘disgruntled elements’ are,” Tamta added.

Mayor Subrata Mukherjee added to the mystery when he said from London: “Check the antecedents of the building. All the answers may lie there.”

Revival hopes go up in smoke

When the Dunlop marketing office at 62A, Free School Street, caved in on Thursday morning, something more than a solid structure went up in flames. For, the building formed one of the components of Dunlop’s property recently cleared by the authorities to be sold off to facilitate plans to revive the firm in the doldrums — financially and otherwise — for quite some time.

62A, Free School Street was recently cleared for sale by the Appellate Authority of Industrial and Financial Reconstruction, officers at the Dunlop India office in Mumbai said. The proceeds would have been used in the revival package, they added.

Though a press release from the Mumbai office expressed confidence that the incident would not make any “substantial impact” on the plans to revive Dunlop India, many in Calcutta felt that any hope that employees may have nurtured for a turnaround was reduced to ashes on Thursday morning.

“This fire is definitely a setback for the financial health of the already-beleaguered firm,” Dunlop India Ltd Employees’ Federation general secretary Aniruddha Sengupta said. “We will have to wait and watch the signals that emanate from the headquarters after this incident,” he added. Refusing to call it an “accident” he demanded a “thorough probe” into the circumstances that led to the fire.

Mayor Subrata Mukherjee, who kept tabs from London, told Metro over the phone that the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC) would not sanction plans for any new construction. Upsetting the company’s plans for any alternative to make up for the loss of the building, the mayor said the first thing he would do after returning to the city would be to insist — with the state government — on an enactment that would allow the CMC to take control of all fire-ravaged commercial and residential buildings.

“It is another case of sabotage and the CMC will not sanction any new construction on the plot,” Mukherjee said from Heathrow airport. “Arson might have been the only recourse for those who were eyeing the building but could not take it over from Dunlop because of yet-to-be-settled labour disputes,” he said, amid rumours that the property was mortgaged to a Mumbai-based agency.

Though no Dunlop officer had met any senior CMC officer till late on Thursday evening, members of the employees’ federation met member, mayor-in-council (building), Swapan Samaddar. They pleaded with the CMC not to do anything that could jeopardise Dunlop employees' interests.

The 60-year-old building has been lying vacant for the past four years, with all marketing operations having been shifted to other buildings, including the company’s headquarters situated just across the gutted building on the same street.

The building, with a total area of about 56,000 sq ft, is valued at about Rs 10 crore, say officers. The only silver lining is that it was insured. The building owners have unpaid property taxes to the tune of Rs 20 lakh due to the CMC, say officers.

Nevertheless, the CMC has decided to pull down what remains of the building on the 25-cottah plot.

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