Fire follows tinderbox tag

A large portion of a Calcutta Municipal Corporation-owned market that had been allowed to stay open even after being identified as a tinderbox three years ago was gutted in a blaze on Monday.

By Our Bureau
  • Published 19.05.15
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PART OF POTATO MARKET GUTTED IN BLAZE

(From top) Firefighters fight the fire at Aloo Patti, beside New Market, on Monday; traders watch the firefighting operation from behind a grille at Sir Stuart Hogg Market. Pictures by Anup Bhattacharya and Sanat Kumar Sinha

A large portion of a Calcutta Municipal Corporation-owned market that had been allowed to stay open even after being identified as a tinderbox three years ago was gutted in a blaze on Monday.

The fire at Aloo Patti, beside New Market, is the second in the heart of the shopping district in less than a month after the blaze that ravaged Citi Mart on April 26.

Fire brigade officials said an electrical short circuit triggered the flames that originated in a potato warehouse around 11.50am and spread to half of the market in a few minutes.

In less than an hour, more than 60 stalls within the tile-roof building were gutted. All these shops had been covered in tarpaulin sheets supported by bamboo poles as an extra layer of protection from rain seeping in through the tile roof.

Twenty fire engines took around two-and-a-half hours to douse the flames, which were fuelled by thermocol, paper, gunny bags and plastic.

Sadhna Sau, a 52-year-old woman, was inconsolable after losing her shop and bundles of cash in the fire. She had smelt something burning but didn't know that a fire had broken out in a nearby warehouse until it was too late to salvage anything.

"Suddenly, we saw flames leaping out from the eastern side of the market. All of us rushed out. I had kept Rs 2 lakh in the cash box to make payments. I couldn't take out the money before escaping. I have lost everything," she said.

The location of Aloo Patti - it is sandwiched between New Market and the fish bazaar - triggered a frenzy of hashtags like #fire in New Market on social media.

Aloo Patti is on Fenwick Bazar Street, lined by several shops selling bacon and poultry that regular visitors consider a part of New Market. Besides potatoes, the market has shops selling spices, sauces, pickles and paper and thermocol plates and packs.

New Market opened on January 1, 1874, and Aloo Patti in 1903. A fire in December 1985 left a large portion of New Market gutted but it was rebuilt and remains one of the city's main shopping centres with an average footfall of 50,000 every day.

Aloo Patti spans over 1,000,00sq ft and has more than 130 shops. More than half of these shops escaped the blaze, thanks to the fire brigade focusing on restricting the flames to one half of the market.

In March 2012, a committee comprising representatives of the fire services department, the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, Calcutta police and CESC had visited several markets, including Aloo Patti, and found it lacking even basic fire-safety mechanisms.

"We found it to be everything a market shouldn't be. Electrical wires were hanging from the roof and there were eateries using gas burners inside. The market has a tile roof; so there was no question of having fire detectors and water sprinklers," said a retired official of the fire services department who was part of the committee.

The inspection had been carried out after a fire gutted the Hatibagan market in north Calcutta.

The CMC, which is quick to reprimand the owners of any establishment where a fire breaks out, had little to say about Aloo Patti staying open without any fire-safety measures being taken.

Mayor Sovan Chatterjee declined to comment on the lack of any fire-safety mechanism in the market. "A fire has broken out and the focus is on minimising the damage as much as possible. This is not the time to discuss fire preparedness," he said in the afternoon.

The director-general of fire services, Sanjay Mukherjee, toed the mayor's line. "Our main objective is to douse the fire. I won't comment on the fire safety preparedness now," he said.

The CMC arranged food for those whose shops were gutted so that they could stay back and salvage whatever was left. "We are arranging a dinner of rice, dal, vegetables and fish for them," an official said.

On April 26, a fire had gutted the upper floors of the Citi Mart garments store in Humayun Place, the building that used to house the landmark Lighthouse cinema.

Among other violations, the owners of Humayun Place had sealed the windows to make the building centrally air-conditioned.