On Christmas, while Calcutta was groggily finding its feet after partying all night, a ghost house in an eastern pocket was busy at work. The address was 33C Topsia Road, where a fire early on November 22 had ravaged the top floor and claimed 11 lives.
They were all workers locked in at a leather unit for the night. Just like those who were locked in on Christmas Day on the ground floor of the house that had been declared “illegal and unsafe”.
Metro had run a series of reports on the sweatshops in the area. The authorities had then promised a crackdown on such illegal factories. Four weeks after the blaze, it was back to square one on the ground floor of 33C Topsia Road, child labour and all.
Here’s a reality check.
On November 22, 11 people were killed in the city’s biggest fire tragedy on the third floor of 33C Topsia Road. The victims were asleep inside an illegal leather bag-making factory in an illegal building with the collapsible gate locked from outside. Workers on the first and second floors, also home to leather bag factories, managed to flee to safety down the narrow staircase.
Soon after the killer blaze, the fire services department declared the building “illegal” and “unsafe”. FIRs were lodged against Khurshid Alam, owner of the building.
The fire department sent a report to police, mentioning the absence of fire-safety measures in the illegal building and also other buildings in the area. South 24-Parganas police promised not to allow functioning of any such factory inside 33C Topsia Road.
A probe confirmed that the factories on the first, second and third floors were operating illegally. Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee ordered an administrative inquiry into the matter.
What we saw on Xmas...
A leather bag-manufacturing unit — Shama Creation — was at work behind closed doors on the ground floor of 33C Topsia Road. A peep through a gap revealed a young man standing in front of a large machine, slicing leather sheets into small pieces. Another worker was busy collecting the pieces and taking them to an adjacent room — a sweatshop where children were at work with hammers, cutters, fittings and adhesives for small wallets and bags. The collapsible gate to the entrance remained locked.
“This is criminal but nobody is bothered about the lives of the workers. All it took for the factory to reopen was a bribe to the authorities. Many more such tragedies are waiting to happen here but the police are just not bothered,” said Asif, residing on the terrace of the doomed building.
What they say…
I am not aware that they have started the factory again. Our officials will inspect the building, as this is a serious matter concerning the lives of workers — Mayor Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya.
“It is the job of police and the Corporation to ensure no such factories function in illegal and unsafe building” — Gopal Bhattacharya, director fire services.
“I will ask my officers to conduct a raid as part of a crackdown in the area” — S.N. Gupta, superintendent of police (South 24-Parganas).