| MESS AT CIVIC ADDRESS: Howrah’s Town Hall, where the teak, iron and concrete roof collapsed at 4 am on Sunday. Picture by Amit Datta
When Tapan Sadhu heard from a friend on Sunday morning that the Howrah Town Hall roof had caved in around 4 am, he sat in stunned silence, contemplating what could have been.
For, Sadhu and several others had spent a couple of hours on Saturday evening under the very roof that came crashing down before daybreak. They had all been attending a meeting called by the Howrah Municipal Corporation (HMC) to ensure that their names made it to the voters’ list.
“I could have been one of the victims, had the roof collapsed just a few hours later… It’s a miracle I am still alive,” said Sadhu.
For all those crowding the Town Hall on Saturday, it had been a providential escape. But then, this was a disaster waiting to happen. Nobody seemed to have noticed how the 119-year-old roof of the heritage hall in Howrah had developed cracks. And yet, barely three months ago, a fresh coat of paint had been applied to the walls by the HMC.
And it was just not Saturday evening when a tragedy could have occurred at Town Hall. It was meant to host another 1,000 people at 3 pm on Sunday, with the United Central Refugee Council due to meet there.
Padmanidhi Dhar, president of the Council and a CPM legislator, voiced his worst fears: “We were supposed to be at the Town Hall from 3 pm… It’s sheer providence that we are alive today.”
Chunks of concrete and teak kept falling on the Town Hall floor till Sunday afternoon, hours after the cave-in had occurred, and the place cordoned off by police. The teak-and-iron structure of the hall had a seating capacity of close to 1,000 and had lately become a regular address for political meetings, being let out for as low as Rs 150 per meeting.
And if the organisers could produce a letter of introduction from a CPM councillor or a party leader, the hall would be handed over for free. On an average, seven to 10 meetings were held here every month.
But no one paid any attention to the urgent need for renovation, despite repeated reminders from local NGOs.
The Howrah District Krira and Sanskritik Mancha had written to the civic authorities and the district magistrate in August 2003, pointing out how all nine heritage structures in Howrah were being neglected.
“The structures were becoming weak and this disaster at the Town Hall was waiting to happen,” Mancha president Sujit Chatterjee said on Sunday, pointing an accusing finger at the local administration.
“We had carried out extensive repairs 10 years ago, but we did not know the building roof had developed such cracks. Inspections had been carried out and this was totally unexpected,” protested Gopal Mukherjee, mayor of Howrah.
Howrah’s deputy mayor Monika Biswas blamed the “regular vibrations from heavy vehicles passing by” for Sunday’s roof collapse. “But we will have to find out what exactly caused the cave-in,” she added.
HMC chief architect Basudeb Mukherjee, however, admitted that the dilapidated hall’s interiors were not checked properly.