Fire laxity echo in trade hub

The AMRI fire that claimed 91 lives will be a year old on December 9. In a knee-jerk reaction to the tragedy, fire officers had promised stringent supervision so that safety norms were followed in the city. After the Stephen Court blaze in March 2010, a committee had been formed to conduct fire audits at public places every week. The SSKM fire on Saturday night was a grim reminder of how little has changed. Metro takes stock of the situation at one of the most vulnerable parts of the city, Burrabazar, where a fire had raged for a week at Nandram market in 2008.

159 Rabindra Sarani

What we saw: The 12-storeyed Onkar Mansion towers over the busy MG Road-Rabindra Sarani crossing. The 35-year-old building houses about 150 commercial and residential tenants. The lane in which the building is located is barely 2.5m wide, ruling out the possibility of any fire tender entering it.

The roof is locked, like at Stephen Court where at least 17 people suffocated after failing to make it to open air following the blaze. Residents of Onkar Mansion say the roof is out of bounds because it houses more than 10 mobile towers.

"Each tower is powered by a generator that needs about 15 litres of diesel per hour. Hundreds of litres of diesel are stored on the roof," said Prem Ostwal, secretary, Onkar Mansion Tenants' Association.

In response to a resident's query under the RTI Act, the CMC wrote on May 10 last year that its building department had not issued "any permission/ sanction for mobile/ Internet tower/ generator to be installed" on the premises.

A joint inspection by the state fire services department, CESC, CMC and Calcutta police in June 2011 found the building to be "operational without any fire and life safety measures". The landlord was directed to build an additional staircase, a water reservoir and install sprinklers, which have not been done.

The building has only one narrow entrance. Fire extinguishers are missing on many of the floors. There are no provisions for sprinklers or smoke detectors.

The owner of the building could not be contacted despite repeated attempts.

Tenant voice: "We live on the eighth floor. If a fire breaks out below us, there's no way we can escape," said a resident.

2 Sir Hariram Goenka Street

What we saw: The eight-storeyed structure stands on a road about 15ft wide. The building, constructed in 2007, is used for both commercial and residential purposes.

If fire-safety loopholes at Onkar Mansion mirror those at Stephen Court, this building echoes the violations at AMRI Hospitals. The basement, meant to be a car park, is being used as a warehouse for clothes. The AMRI fire had started in the basement, which was being used as office space and storage area. The open area around the building premises has become a car park. A generator has been kept on a 15ft high metallic stand between the building and its adjoining one.

The first and the fifth floors, used for residential purposes, accommodate about 10 flats each. There are two staircases next to each other at one end of the corridor. All the corridors are narrower than 5ft and do not have fire sprinklers.

When contacted, the owner of the building refused to admit that he was the owner.

Tenant voice: "The landlord did not install fire extinguishers. We pooled in money to buy the extinguishers on all the floors," said the owner of a sari shop on the second floor.

201AandB MG Road

What we saw: The 115-year-old Sadasukh Katra houses about 400 small shops, dealing primarily in textiles. The largest market building in Burrabazar after Raja Katra, the four-storeyed structure is sandwiched between MG Road and Cotton Street.

The market has 11 exits on the ground floor. The walls and the ceiling near the entrance next to the main one are lined with exposed electrical wires and meter boxes. The narrow passages, some of them not more than 3ft wide, are narrowed further by stacks of cartons at several points. There are a few fire extinguishers but no water sprinkler or reservoir. The first floor is a mirror image of the ground floor.

Residents of the fourth floor alleged that diesel was illegally stored on the second floor.

"We plan to construct water reservoirs on the roof and overhaul the wiring soon," said Prem Kumar Tibrewal, the president of Sadasukh Katra Traders' Association.

Tenant voice: "We live in fear. A fire in one part of the building might spread to the other parts before a single extinguisher can be used," said Shambhu Agarwal, a resident of the third floor.

Official version

Bibhas Guha, director, West Bengal Fire and Emergency Services, said: "We conduct audits every Saturday and will look into the irregularities."