Fire at Stephen Court, Kolkata

Again. And Again.

It’s a tragedy. Lives are lost, as is property, as are landmarks and history. But does anyone care [1,2]?

This is very similar to the annual rainy season in Kolkata, where any significant rain leads to water logging, and pollution of the standard sources of drinking water (the drains overflow and mix). And every year, we get two statements from the Municipal Corporation [Rains 2007, Rains 2008]:

1. Things like this happen when there is major rain.

2. Next year will be better.

And yet we have not learnt, we have not implemented, we have not prepared.

It is identical in the case of these fires. For this latest fire at Stephen Court, the Minister of Fire and Emergency Services went so far as to say:

“It takes one hour to cover a 15 km journey, that is why the delay took place in the fire tenders reaching there.”

And that is a valid excuse, one that can be accepted? 15 km a fire truck has to travel, to reach a locality that is as busy as it is crowded, when there is a major fire?

And how are the buildings themselves equipped to handle a fire emergency? Evacuation routes and procedures? Emergency protocols? Fire extinguishers in the buildings? Fire codes, and they being adhered to? Does it help to have a wad of currency notes ready if a building does not adhere to protocols? Does the Minister of Fire and Emergency Services get asked questions about these?

And then we have the babus being more concerned about forms in triplicate and their chairs being oiled enough, than doing actual work. 4 days into the Burrabazar fire, The Telegraph had this to say (link at the beginning of this post):

Army officers said they were allowed their own source of water only this afternoon after over two days of non-cooperation by fire officials.

I am certain the Stephen House fire will have a similar handling. Excuses, reasons, a few arrests now that it will be shown that fire codes were not adhered to, and life will be back to normal. Until the next fire, when the cycle will run again.

It is our lives that are in danger, our buildings, our history, and our city. As much as it is the government’s responsibility, it is also our own, to make sure that everything is in order. The government itself is not forced down our throats; it is an elected government that we brought (and kept) to power.

We are great at making excuses, we at great at pointing fingers; we are terrible at doing anything about it.

More fun quotes from the Fire Minister (link at beginning of post):

“… From this incident, I have learnt a lesson: ladders should be kept in and around Esplanade to speed up the process of firefighting,”

The minister flaunted another lesson: carpets cannot save people forced to jump from highrises. So, the government is “planning” to purchase nets. “Right now, we have carpets but those cannot save a man from getting injuries,” he said.

Amazing, the amount he has learnt from just one incident, no?

Oh Kolkata!

Or rather, oh West Bengal. Bengal’s woes continue, and I wonder (do I really, now?) how much of it has to do with the ‘system’ in place, and the contacts that people who should be ‘responsible’ manage to use for their own good.

We’d been wondering in our last days at Kolkata at how some of the newer buses had different designs from what we had grown used to seeing for the past twenty-odd years. Turns out there was actually a directive to make the said changes! Yet, only some of the newer buses actually had those changes, not the rest of them.

There was a mishap recently on a major Kolkata roadway where a private bus ran off the road, and where 21 people were killed, and around 20 more injured. Putting aside the fact that the driver was on a ‘race’ with another vehicle, there are other issues too. It emerges that some of the changes in design, that were not made in the bus in the accident, actually hampered rescue operations.

And what do the people in charge have to say about that? Here goes:

Says the Times of India (scroll down to the section titled Rescue was hampered by window bars’ ):

“Local people engaged in the rescue operation said things would have been a lot different had there been no iron bars on the windows. Private buses in the city still have windows bound by iron rods that hinder rescue operations during emergency.

“We had to use shovels and axes to break the rods. A lot of time was wasted. If the windows were not bound, we could have saved many more lives,” said Swapan Haldar of Kestopur.

Though all public transport in the country has to abide by central safety norms, buses in Kolkata still have barricaded windows.

A circular in 2003 had instructed all private buses to convert to the two-by-two sitting arrangement as well as do away with grilles. The deadline for such conversion was 2004. PVD (Public Vehicles Department) and RTA (Regional Transport Authority) officials admitted that there has been leniency in taking action against errant vehicles.”

Says the Additional Director (technical), Public Vehicles Department:

“The grilles were introduced to rein in unruly passengers. The new BS III buses do not have these barricades.”

Well, what about the older buses, which actually form a major portion of the vehicles on the road? Never mind. To continue,

Says RTA Deputy Chairman:

“… the vigil on emergency exits has not been strict. The Kestopur incident should work as an eye-opener. We will definitely take up the issue.”

Definitely, eh? And what were you doing for the past four years?

Says President of Bengal Bus Syndicate (essentially the bus owners’ union):

“It is not possible for all owners to convert the models of the old buses. But we will definitely take up the issue to do away with the iron grilles at the meeting on April 11,”

Not possible??? How so? I wonder if such a logic would work anywhere else. Why won’t you make your buses so as to adhere to safety directions? ‘Coz we can’t afford it. An accident once in a while? So what, but we can’t afford to be safe!

And there’s that ‘definitely’ word again. And once more, as in the previous case, is a promise to ‘take up the issue’. Not do something, no, they can’t promise that they’ll do something, but they will ‘take up the issue’.

Ours is supposed to be a democracy, right? In fact, the world’s largest one. I wonder who it is that is supposed to raise his voice. And raise his voice against who? When the people in charge, including the Assistant Technical Director and Deputy Chairman of two government agencies, can make these statements in their formal capacities, where does it lead us?