A day after Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee accused the Railways of not providing state authorities the building plan that could have made the job of firefighters easier during a massive blaze that killed nine first responders in the Eastern Railway headquarters here, a political war of words erupted between the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the BJP on Tuesday.
“It is a Railways office, I thought someone from their side will be here. I have enquired, none came. Railways are also accountable. We wanted a building plan but did not receive cooperation in that too, I have been informed. I do not want to politicise it though,” Banerjee had told reporters at the accident site on Monday night.
Hours after the TMC chief’s comments, Railways Minister Piyush Goyal took to Twitter to counter her accusations. “All possible assistance has been provided by the Railways to the state government during this unfortunate fire accident. A high-level inquiry consisting of four principal heads of Railway departments has been ordered to ascertain the cause of the fire. Railway officials, including the GM, are at the site and are working in coordination with the state government for rescue and relief efforts. We are committed to doing everything possible to ensure safety of all concerned,” he wrote.
Goyal also praised railway employees for the timely evacuation of people from the building, and extended condolences to the families of the deceased.
Hitting out at Banerjee, BJP IT cell chief and the party’s Bengal co-in-charge, Amit Malviya, in series of tweets wrote, “Every time there is a tragedy in WB, all that Mamata Banerjee does is shift blame. She blamed the Left for bridge collapse in 2016 and the fire in AMRI. Social media was blamed for Dhulagarh riots and now Railway is being blamed for the fire, in which they have lost their people! In March 2010, when she was in opposition, she questioned lack of disaster management protocols, after the Park Street fire. But after 10 years in office, there has been no improvement in track record of fire safety. Once again, negligence of the state has led to loss of lives. WB needs a proactive disaster management policy, equipped local bodies with fire fighting equipment and put in appropriate protocols.”
The BJP’s state Mahila Morcha president Agnimitra Paul visited SSKM Hospital, where the bodies of the victims were sent, and demanded a fair investigation.
“CM should stop politicising every incident. Even after 10 years she has not been able to develop the basic infrastructure in emergency services. The firefighters took elevators instead of using ladders. She should stop recruiting incompetent people who support the TMC and instead allow efficient people to be at responsible places,” she added.
BJP MP Locket Chatterjee and senior leader Rahul Sinha also visited the accident spot on Strand Road and criticised the TMC chief.
In response, senior TMC leader and state minister Bratya Basu lashed out at the BJP for doing “politics” over the incident. He questioned the role of the Railways in the incident. “This is a multi-storey railway property. Yet, why was no senior railway official seen at the time of the accident? Even after such a large crowd at Brigade [Parade Ground], not a single leader was seen at the spot. The fire broke out at a central government property. At night, the chief minister rushed to the spot. After this there shouldn’t be any politics over the incident. One behalf my party I extend condolences to those who have died,” Basu said.
Meanwhile, Eastern Railway issued a statement claiming that Railway Protection Force (RPF) personnel and Railway staff were the ones to carry out the initial evacuation. Four railway employees were among the nine killed in the fire.
“In an unfortunate incident, a fire broke out on the 13th floor. RPF and other Railway staff immediately rushed to the 13th floor and evacuated most of the staff present there. At the same time, fire brigade was also informed about the incident. The fire brigade reached the incident site at around 6.30 pm and started operation to control the fire,” read the Eastern Railway’s statement.
The rail division said its officials were present at the spot for “better coordination with the fire brigade and state officials”. It added, “Staff and officers of railway were present to guide the fire brigade to access the affected area of the building. Senior officers of Eastern Railway rushed to the site, including the Additional General Manager/ER and General Manager/ER, and took stock of the situation and guided the RPF and other officials present there for better coordination with the fire brigade and state officials.”
The Railways said the situation was constantly monitored for early relief and rescue operations and the fire was finally extinguished late at night.
“Eastern Railway condoles the unfortunate incident and death of railway officials and other officers and staff of state government who sacrificed their lives. The online ticket booking has started from the early morning today. PRS ticket counters have been operational in six zonal Railways under Kolkata PRS, except a very few locations directly connected with communication network from New Koilaghat Building, which is expected to be restored very soon. Booking of unreserved ticket through UTS counters is normal,” the railway division added.
Meanwhile, West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar on Tuesday visited the site of the accident and extended his condolences to the families of those who died.
“It is sad that six of the nine victims were part of the rescue team. There is a need for modernisation of fire and municipal services in Kolkata. It was high time fire services in the state capital were upgraded,” he added.
The governor emphasised that an overhaul of the firefighting system should have happened right after the Park Street fire in 2010 in which 24 lives were lost.