A devastating fire ravaged large parts of Hatibagan market — one of the oldest in the north of the city — in the small hours of Thursday. Though the damage was extensive, there was no report of any casualties.
More than 30 fire tenders were pressed into service to fight the rapidly spreading flames as the market was engulfed in smoke. The blaze was brought under control after nearly ten hours but not before a large number of stalls and shops were razed to the ground, their owners desperately trying to salvage what remained of their stocks — in some cases replenished in view of the shopping season running up to the Bengali New Year's Day next month — from among the smouldering embers.
Between 350 to 400 stalls and 80 to 120 shops were gutted, Javed Khan, West Bengal's Minister for Fire and Emergency Services, said in the State Assembly later in the day.
The market is located in a congested residential area and there were fears that the fire could spread to adjacent buildings. The local people alleged that the fire brigade was late to respond and did not turn up till about two hours after the fire broke out at around 2.30 a.m.
Local people rushed into the market to assist in the fire-fighting. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, ministers and senior police officials were among those to visit the spot. Leader of the Opposition in the West Bengal Assembly, Surya Kanta Mishra, was also there.
Pointing out that the market was a privately-owned, Ms. Banerjee said there was an absence of adequate fire-fighting facilities. The numerous stalls set up by hawkers in the market's vicinity had made access for fire men and disaster management personnel difficult, she added.
Amid allegations by a section of the shop-owners that it was an act of sabotage, Ms. Banerjee did not rule out a conspiracy at work. “It will have to be ascertained whether the fire was the result of a deliberate act by anyone. The Kolkata Municipal Corporation and the State's Disaster Management department will be thoroughly inquiring into the cause of the incident,” she said.
“Though it is a private market which houses several illegal godowns, the government will, as a humanitarian gesture, try to provide assistance to those stall-owners who had lost all. The civic authorities will be asked to look at remodelling the market as well as look for an alternative site to rehabilitate the affected shopkeepers,” she added.
The Chief Minister also pointed out the need for adequate fire-fighting measures in privately-run markets and hospitals.