Disaster struck at the Eastern Railway Headquarters at Strand Road in Kolkata when a major fire broke out on the 12th floor of the high rise building. 9 people lost their lives in the fire, including 3 railwaymen, 5 firefighters and one police ASI.
In the aftermath of the disaster, the state government has come under strong criticism for its lack of disaster management infrastructure. Kolkata is no stranger to fire accidents. The Park Street Fire in 2010, the AMRI Hospital fire in December 2011 and now the Strand Road Fire.
Following the accident, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has indulged in blame game instead of laying emphasis on investigating the factors that precipitated the crime and those that led to the loss of life. She claimed that no men from the Indian Railways were present, a claim that has been denied outright.
“The property belongs to railways, it’s their responsibility but they were unable to provide map of building. I don’t want to do politics over the tragedy but no one from railways has come here,” said Mamata Banerjee. However, the claim was rejected by Manoj Joshi, general manager in the Eastern Railway.
“Officers of railways were present there, efforts were being made for whatever was required. Maybe any map wasn’t made available immediately, staff members of railways were present to guide about the building,” he said.
A doctor in Kolkata aware of the matter we spoke to blamed the lack of adequate disaster management facilities for the accident. We were told, “During the fire at the Eastern Railway building at Strand Road, Kolkata, the hydraulic ladder after arriving at the fire location, took nearly 40 minutes to set up. This was the critical golden hour which could have doused the fire immediately but due to lack of proper equipment and training, the fire could not be controlled.”
“Even after setup, only a single jet could be used for the fire at the 13th floor and another hydraulic ladder could not be deployed due to lack of space. This again brings out the lapses in equipment procurement for fire fighting through,” he added.
The doctor also mourned the fact that there has been no discernible improvement in disaster management facilities since Mamata Banerjee came to power a decade ago. Before she became Chief Minister in 2011, she had pointed out that there were no disaster management capabilities during the Park Street Fire. However, since she came to power, the sector has seen no improvement either.
Furthermore, her comments against the Indian Railways make it abundantly clear that Mamata Banerjee is more interested in playing politics over the matter to hide the incompetence of her government.
She has a history of blaming opposition parties for the follies of her government. When corruption charges emerged over Amphan Cyclone relief, she blamed the CPM’s ‘legacy of theft’. When riots occurred at Dhulagarh, she claimed ‘wrong information’ was circulating on social media. When the flyover accident happened in Kolkata, she said the construction had begun under CPM rule.
And now, Mamata Banerjee says that Indian Railway officials were not present during the Strand Road fire. In terms of mitigating such accidents, Gujarat has shown the way. Gujarat became the first state to formulate the Disaster Management Act which equipped local bodies with firefighting skills and created awareness in schools.
Gujarat’s measures were later endorsed by the Center and other states were asked to follow Gujarat’s lead. The state also has adopted better measures to ensure fire safety, including awarding private engineers the authority to inspect and certify buildings for fire safety. Four special posts have also been set up to oversee various aspects of fire safety.