Fire victims scour the remains of their homes on Wednesday. Picture by Bishwarup Dutta (See Page 20)
Number 4 Basanti Colony, just another slum till yesterday, emerged as a political playground today with Mamata Banerjee scoring a home run by announcing that the women welfare associations of the railways would build 650 houses for the victims of the Ultadanga slum blaze.
“The rebuilt homes will be pucca structures and of the same dimensions as the ones that have been devoured by the blaze,” the Trinamul Congress chief and railway minister said on Wednesday evening.
Around 2,500 residents of Number 4 Basanti Colony, off Bidhan Nagar Road station, saw their home and hearth being reduced to rubble within a few hours on Tuesday.
Mamata’s announcement capped efforts launched by all political parties to derive mileage from the fire ahead of the civic polls.
After reaching the blaze site, she headed first for the relief camp run by partyman Sujit Bose and then visited the one opened by the Calcutta Municipal Corporation.
At the Trinamul camp, she said she had brought relief materials such as tarpaulin sheets and blankets.
As the 1,000-odd homeless dwellers erupted with joy, Mamata silenced them: “This is nothing. Listen carefully. I have spoken in Delhi about rebuilding the homes that were lost in the fire. Around 450 homes were gutted, but we will build 650 homes on behalf of the various women welfare associations of the railways.”
At both camps, she hinted at the possibility of a sabotage behind Tuesday’s tragedy, saying: “This is railway land. Those who have been waiting like rakshas to grab it should realise that little will come of mischief like arson. The plot was acquired by the railways.”
Mayor Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya as well as state government sources, however, rubbished Mamata’s claim that the plot was a railway property, saying the title deed was still with the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA).
The mayor said the plot — its size varies from two to five acres, according to the versions of the officials in Calcutta and Delhi — originally belonged to the Calcutta Improvement Trust. “The ownership was transferred to the CMDA after the CIT was merged with it in the 1980s.”
Urban development minister Asok Bhattacharya — the CMDA functions under his department — refused comment on the plot’s ownership or Mamata’s announcement to get the ravaged homes rebuilt. “We are yet to receive any proposal from the railway ministry,” said Bhattacharya.
Officials in the state government as well as the civic body refuted Mamata’s claim that the railway ministry had acquired the plot.
The ministry, while it was being steered by the late A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury in 1982-84, wanted the plot to set up a railway terminal.
“The ministry had made a token deposit of around Rs 50 lakh with the CIT but apparently lost interest in the project thereafter. There was no further word or payment from Delhi and the plot’s title deed still rests with the CMDA,” said an official.
Representatives of the railway ministry told Metro that Khan Chowdhury’s project could not take off as the plot was too small for a railway terminal.
According to mayoral council member (roads) Tuhin Bera, the railways can no longer lay claim to the plot as the terminal it had proposed to build has come up in Chitpur.
Caught between claims and counter-claims, the likes of Bani Saha living under a makeshift shamiana in the Trinamul relief camp are left wondering: “Aar koto din ei bhabey thakbo (How long will be have to be like this)?”
At the blaze site, a forensic team from police collected samples on Wednesday.
“The cause of the fire has not yet been ascertained,” said an officer of the detective department.