KOLKATA: Guesthouses and boarding lodges have mushroomed in the Free School Street-Sudder Street-Marquis Street-Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road belt in recent years due to the influx of Bangladeshi travellers for medical treatment as well as business and tourism. But there is scant regard to safety protocols and hardly any fire safety equipment to prevent the casualty that happened on Saturday.
Fire department sources said a simple smoke detector could have raised an alarm when the suspected short-circuit caused the fire in the early hours of Saturday. “The alarm would have woken up the staff and the guests who could have evacuated before the fire grew and turned into a hazard,” an official said.
Calcutta Hotel & Restaurant Owners’ Association president Rajesh Sethi which has several members that operate hotels and guest houses in the belt, including the one where a Bangladeshi tourist died on Saturday, admitted that most of the establishments were operating with a no objection certificate from the fire department as they were unable to comply with the norms given the congested nature of the locality.
“Most businesses are in very old buildings that do not have a second staircase or a large underground reservoir to store water for fire-fighting. Also, when these buildings came up, there was no norm for leaving space between them to carry out firefighting operations. Hence, only the newly constructed hotels have fire licenses. There are also some smaller properties with eight to 10 rooms that don’t even have a police license,” said Sethi.
From around 60 hotels and guest houses till 2017-18, the number of guest houses and lodges have increased to more than 120 with many of them offering less than a dozen rooms and operating out of old ramshackle buildings whose interiors have been modified. “Many guest houses and lodges have sprung up in 2018 and 2019. Most of them are situated in old, dilapidated buildings. The interiors have been redone with a fresh coat of paint and basic furniture but some of them still have old wiring. If there is additional load, these wires heat up and at times develop faults or short circuits,” said a hotelier.
While all guest houses and hotels operating in Kolkata require NOC from fire department, trade license from KMC and police license from the police headquarters in Lalbazar, of the 120-odd facilities operating in this belt, only around 30 are believed to have proper fire safety measures.
“Those facilities that do not have a restaurant do not require fire license or fire safety equipment like smoke detectors, sprinklers and fire doors. They are not permitted to light a fire. But use of microwave ovens, electric grills and electric kettles are permitted in rooms. As the load goes up, the old, frayed wires are vulnerable to faults,” said another hotelier.
At present, the occupancy in the 4,000 odd rooms in the area is around 50%. After a year-and-a-half long lull due to the pandemic when the hotels and guest houses hardly had any business, guests have just started trickling in from November-December 2021 and has gained momentum since February following restoration of flights. However, with tourist visas yet to be issued for those travelling through the land border, half the rooms remain empty.
“One of the reasons why owners have been unable to spend on infrastructure is the losses they incurred in the past two years. With scheduled commercial flights slated to begin from March 27, we hope tourist visas are relaxed so that there are more travellers from Bangladesh other than those requiring health treatment and others coming on business. That will lead to improvement in the establishments on Free School Street and other neighbourhoods in the belt,” said another hotelier.
Sethi said the association had recently held a meeting with police on the issue of security and how to ensure that guests did not check in with fake IDs. A similar meeting was lined up with the fire department for improvement of safety standards. “Following this unfortunate incident, we will expedite the meeting and ask all members to comply with suggestions made by the fire department,” he said.