Kolkata’s Gariahat junction, once offering a fine urban landscape, is now a victim of what Andre Gunder Frank had called the ‘development of under-development’. Never perhaps has the consequence of unchecked pavement hawking, cheek by jowl with the city’s traditional garment stores, been so devastating as it was as Sunday unfolded. Though saris and garments worth lakhs of rupees were destroyed int he Gariahat fire, it is of relatively lesser moment that the accident occurred in the peak of the wedding season. At the core of the tragedy is the practice of hawkers drawing electricity ~ an illegality in itself ~ and cooking on the pavement for the ubiquitous fast-food outlets and also, of course, for themselves.

As with the fire at Bagree market last September, the tangled skein of wires is a standing threat to residents and shopowners of the Gariahat area. That risk has now devastated Traders’ Assembly and Adi Dhakeswari Bastralaya ~ household names both in the sari trade. Those robust enterprises have tragically been reduced to ashes in a particularly thriving swathe of the city. As it turned out, the tarpaulin sheets, that cover the pavement wares, fuelled the fire that required ten hours to be doused.

The vulnerability of the other buildings in the vicinity is dangerously real unless the public utility entities, notably the electricity and municipal authorities, and the fire services ~ now under a minister with CPI-M membership as part of his CV ~ pull their socks up. In course of the city’s graduation from Sutanuti to shopping malls, the economic history of Kolkata has been jolted to its foundations yet again.

Mayor Firhad Hakim has sought to be wise after the event ~ “Firefighting is becoming difficult because of hawkers. They have to use carts for hawking.” Implicit is the failure to curb pavement hawking ~ the common strand that somehow binds one dispensation to the next. In the absence of viable relocation of a source of livelihood, pavement hawking shall persist as an integral enterprise of the city ~ from Gariahat to Shyambazar via the choc-a-bloc stalls at the Grand Hotel arcade.

The Gariahat intersection is one major area where the proposed Operation Sunshine has degenerated to Operation Sundown. Mercifully, the longtime residents of Gurudas Mansion were unscathed at an inhospitable hour.

Not wholly unrelated are the inbuilt defects of the five-storey building, which makes do without a fire-alarm and sprinklers, let alone a reservoir. Horror of horrors, there was no equipment to prevent the fire from spreading. On closer reflection, the municipal authorities would appear to have tacitly condoned the gross violation of rules by traders, hawkers and residents. The Gariahat fire showcases a hideous cocktail of pavement enterprise, power theft, and scant regard for safety, most particularly in the storerooms. The failure is overwhelming. ‘Development’ and ‘Under-development’ are but two aspects of the same system.