| A minute’s silence to mourn Topsia’s dead. Councillor and MLA Jawed Ahmed Khan (second from right) addressed a meeting of the owners of sweatshops in Topsia on Sunday afternoon and spelt out the dos and don’ts to prevent a recurrence of the fire tragedy at 33C Topsia Road on November 22 morning, that claimed 11 lives. To Khan’s left is Ghulam Ali, who led the rescue act on the fateful night. Picture by Biswarup Dutta
The Topsia tragedy could have been avoided had the government acted on a 2003 report, prepared by the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA).
Funded by the state pollution control board (PCB), the report mapped and identified industries in the Calcutta Metropolitan Area and highlighted the fire hazard-prone zones like Topsia, Tiljala, Cossipore, Bagmari Road and Ultadanga.
Of the 141 wards in Calcutta, inflammable units can be found in 40 wards, stated the study, compiled at a cost of Rs 33.5 lakh and termed the first such exercise in Calcutta. State urban development minister and CMDA chairman Asok Bhattacharya forwarded the report to chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in 2003.
But layers of dust were allowed to settle on the report — submitted to the PCB — in some nondescript department, while the tinderboxes were allowed to mushroom in Calcutta. In one such unit, at 33C Topsia Road, a devastating blaze on November 22 morning claimed 11 lives and left several others injured.
“The report is very much in the public domain,” said P.R. Baviskar, chief executive officer, CMDA.
After surveying 14,500 industrial units in greater Calcutta, the report also came up with a number of suggestions for the government.
“The report is available at the PCB library. We have used the report primarily to control polluting units. I am not sure whether the fire-vulnerability part was used to initiate any action,” said a board official.
On fire safety, the report stated: “The department of fire services is required to be intimated about the areas, which are specially fire-prone due to storage of inflammable material in residential areas.”
The third-floor leather bag-manufacturing unit of Tenex Exports at 33C Topsia Road was stashed with inflammable items, like glue and leather and that, too, behind a door under lock and key for the night.
Most buildings in the area — an industrial belt — house manufacturing units dealing in plastic, leather and rubber products. Inflammable items like leather, glue, rubber, acid, plastic granules, PVC sheets, and plastic waste can be found in these buildings.
But none of the government agencies — PCB, Calcutta Municipal Corporation or CMDA — ever told the people of Topsia, Tangra and Tiljala about the potential danger.
The area does not even have a fire station and the nearest one is on Free School Street, a drive of around 20 minutes.
“The lives would have been saved if we had a fire station nearby,” said Ghulam Ali, a local resident, who had led the rescue operation at 33C Topsia Road.