Sunday, January 13, 2008

This Was Waiting to Happen

It's sad that my first post this year has to be about the destruction of property and livelihood of so many people here in Kolkata.

Burrabazzar is the traditional business hub in this city. In fact, you arrive at Howrah, try to get a good glimpse of the Howrah Bridge as you cross the river and the first place you see in Kolkata is "Burrabazar" . The hustle and bustle and the crowds hit any visitor to Kolkata. This was were the real "business" of Kolkata was transacted. The wholesale heart of Kolkata.
The business is carried out of small rooms and shops known as "gaddis" one after another in ancient dilappidated buildings with little thought for safety norms. A cluster of gaddis/buidlings which dealt in one kind of item is called a "patti" e.g. "tirpal patti" , "chini patti" "sona patti". Many families even lived there, some for generations.
The narrow roads in that area are always choc-a-bloc with people, two-wheelers, cycles, handcarts, cycle-carts and ofcourse mankind; every one in a hurry . On weekdays, Burrabazar throbed with the focus of men and women out to make their money. The people who populate this area are "tradtional" in appearance and in their mindsets.

On Sundays, when one came through that area , the silence would be striking and here and there one would find clusters of men who did manual labour sitting together and either performing a puja or sitting around a "dholakia" and singing their rustic songs and reminising about their villages.
There was a time when I was working in the Sales department of a bank and had to make frequent forays into the Burrabazar "pattis" to scavenge around for accounts and investments and insurance applications. I wasn't very successful as I could not really relate to the people and the "traditional" mindset would not allow the businessmen there believe that a "ladki" could discuss financial matters with them.
I remember going into these buildings which were once very handsome structures and seeking out establishments after criss-crossing narrow passageways and stepping over stacked items like blankets, plactic buckets, reams of cloth all dumped along the narrow passage ways. There is one vivid memory I have, I had come just come out of a "gaddi" which dealt in bedcovers and I took a worng turn and I found myself staring at heaps of tins of paint stacked on the narrow passage and barely three feet away, a man sat blissfully preparing tea on a portable stove ! Overhead electric wires hung in a tangle maze barely a few metres over my head. I held my breath and ran out as fast as I could.
That memory has always been with me. I later on asked some of the businessmen about insuring their goods and was told that "God" was their insurer, so they did not need mortal insurance. I asked them about the safety hazards that the building posed and again I was told 'It is in God's hands". No one had answers to narrow crowded laned and illegal structures . Every one was busy making money with little regard for the hazards that their surroundings posed.
So I was saddened when the TV channels started beaming the story about the big fire which has broken out there and as I type this post, the fire has still not been brought under control but I was not surprised. This was just waiting to happen. If only people had exercised a little care and for once money could have played second fiddle to caution , destruction on such monstrous proportions could have easily been averted.
"Sabotage" a common word is being bandied about; but even that could have been averted. Basic fire-fighting measure and some safety practices would have avoided this mindless loss.
My in-laws have business establishments in that area, fortunately they escaped by a whisker because a road between the buildings prevented the fire from spreading. The businessmen will recover but I am concerned about their ancillaries- mainly the office workers who commute from great distances to work for a pittance under uncomfortable circumstances because they have families to look after and the daily wagers from the neighbouring states. What about them and their families ? We have no answers yet. I have sent out a few emails to some of the prominent newspapers with a suggestion, and I 'll post on the response I get.

Kolkata is slowly succumbing to money and muscle power - we have been gradually losing our heritage buidlings, our environment (as waterbodies and open spaces are rapidly grabbed and constructed over) , our basic values and our own safety and well-being, this fire should be the last wake-up call against the apathy which we take as a part of our lives .