'Palike treated market like an orphan'

A day after fire ravaged 123 shops in Bangalore’s iconic Russell Market, shop owners denied on Sunday that the fire brigade was not alerted promptly.

Abdul Tabrez, whose fruit shop (No 22) was destroyed in the mishap, claimed that there was no delay in calling the fire brigade. Tabrez said he was in the market till 12.30 am, roughly three hours before the fire broke out. One of Tabrez’s workers slept in the market, and called him around 3.15 am when the fire broke out.

“When I reached the place around 4 am, huge flames had engulfed the market. Police had arrived and did not allow anyone in. The fire brigade arrived about 20 minutes later,” Tabrez said.

Arif Ahmad, whose shops (52 and 53) were also destroyed in the inferno, agreed. “Most labourers who slept in the market ran away as soon as the fire broke. And probably they did not think about calling the fire brigade,” he said.

More than the alleged delay in informing the fire brigade, shopkeepers say, it was actually “sheer negligence” by the Palike which triggered the mishap. It was a fire accident waiting to happen. “Russell Market ek laawaris market hai,” (Russell Market is an orphan),” Mohammad Idrees Chodhury, Secretary of the Russell Market Fruit Merchants’ Association, said.

The Palike, many other shopkeepers alleged, was “not interested” in maintaining the market at all. “Only the rent collector would turn up once in a while. No one else ever enquired about how things are here,” M S Sultan, a social worker from Shivajinagar, complained.

The BBMP’s “indifference” forced the shopkeepers to fend for themselves. Accordingly, the shopkeepers joined hands. A rift, however, occurred between fruit and vegetable vendors. Hence, two separate associations were formed.

While the fruit vendors took more interest in maintaining their section, the vegetable vendors were not as keen. The first two lines, consisting of shops selling fruits and English flowers, were better-maintained. The shopkeepers first deployed three security guards to man the fruit stalls but let them off when the gates were put in. Ceiling fans were also fitted in.

The vegetable vendors, however, did not take much interest, and it actually reflected in the damage incurred by them. Not all fruit shops were destroyed, but all vegetable stalls were. The market’s vegetable section bore the brunt of the mishap. The iron rods, which held the structure together, have bent, making it extremely difficult for the shopkeepers to resume business.

While the cause of fire is still unknown, conspiracy theories continued to do rounds. “The ceiling fans in the fruit section have lost their shape. Something is amiss,” Chodhury said.
Dr B Mohan, Director, Forensic Science Laboratory, visited the spot and said a report would be submitted shortly.

According to Arif Ahmad, not many people were happy with the BBMP getting meagre revenue from the Russell Market (Rs 86,000 per month). Chodhury, however, disagreed. “They never asked for an increase in the rent. They were simply not interested. Had they sought to increase the rent, we would have agreed, provided we got better facilities,” he added.

The traders say they do not have any issues with the BBMP rebuilding the market, but would never allow it to take possession. “If the BBMP can build or renovate the market, it’s fine. We’re also ready to pay more for better facilities. We have faith in the Palike,” Siraj Ahmed, a vegetable shopkeeper, said.

Many traders cleared the debris in their shops even as large number of people thronged the place to enquire about the mishap and console the shopkeepers.

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