Here are are media reports on the Darjeeling fire:
The Telegraph has a long article on details of the fire.
Fire officials said they had received the first call around 2.15am. The nearest fire station is 3km from the market. Within next 45 minutes, the blaze was uncontrollable, burning the cluster of wooden structures, shops selling foreign goods, grocery and electronic items among others, and the sole concrete five-storey building.
Asked what had caused the blaze, the fire officials refused to give a direct answer. “The blaze spread after three gas cylinders exploded,” one of the officers said.
On February 9, 2011, Nima Sangmu, a resident of the market area, had reported that around midnight she had found kerosene sprinkled on at least 14 of the 30 shops along a staircase.
A strong whiff of kerosene had pulled the lady out of the bed and paved way for an overnight vigil by shopkeepers that foiled what looked like an arson plot.
L.T. Bhutia, the inspector-in-charge of Darjeeling Sadar police station, said: “There have been no complaints of an arson as of now but we have started an investigation independently.”
The blaze was brought under control around 6am by local people, the Haryana-based Saha Satnam Singhji Greens Welfare Force which has its own fire tender, army and six fire tenders, three of which were from Kalimpong, Kurseong and Bijanbari.
The Darjeeling municipality also opened the taps of its reservoir though only one of the three fire hydrants was functioning.
“We have to seriously consider setting up more hydrants. We heard that there were more than 113 fire hydrants in town in the early 50s but not many are there now,” said Amar Singh Rai, chairman of the Darjeeling municipality board.
Another article on the Telegraph bizarrely has an underwhelming headline that mentions a 5 story building being burnt, whereas over 100 houses got burnt.
5-storey concrete building burnt
With the fire virtually uncontrollable because of the wooden structures, people focussed on saving the concrete building where Sherpa lived.
Fire tenders were being filled with water stored by the hotels. At this moment, Sherpa saw her concrete building go up in flames. Nothing worthwhile could be salvaged because the building was one of the first few structures to go up in flames. As her building caught fire, a strong wind that blew from east to west further complicated matters.
“The wind blew from east to west and this fanned the flames towards the wooden structure,” said another eyewitness Sonam Bhutia.
It was probably because of the wind that about half a dozen shops which lie between NB Singh Road and NH55 were also razed to the ground.
Soon after the fire, the Darjeeling Municipality declared the area a no-construction zone (to prevent haphazard construction).
The Darjeeling municipality declared the market above Chowk Bazar a “no-construction zone” soon after it was razed to the ground early this morning.
“The area has been declared a non-construction zone for the time being. This order is being issued to ensure that there is no haphazard construction in the area, the roads remain wide and a planned structure comes up in the future,” said Amar Singh Rai, the chairman of the Darjeeling municipality.
The civic chief said “for some reason” most of the shopkeepers had not gone in for mutation of their property.
“We have not collected any toll (taxes) from the area. We would want to go through the documents,” said Rai, indicating that the civic body perceived that many had encroached upon the area.
Most of the shopkeepers, however, said the land on which the market stood was privately-owned. “One Md Saluddin who stays in Varanasi owns most of the land. We hear that he has about 45 family members and each of them has been given a share. However, the land is still in the name of Md Saluddin and some people come once in a year to collect the rents,” said a trader whose shop was gutted.
Another businessman said after the market was gutted on November 17, 1971, the land owners had not constructed the complex. “Those who had shops in the area built the structures on their own. This is why the rents are also low,” said another trader who refused to divulge the rent.
With the land in somebody’s name and the building constructed by individual owners there seems to have been some technical problems in the mutation, civic sources said.
Many shopkeepers said on condition of anonymity that the municipality was taking advantage of the tragedy.
“Although we have not officially heard of the order on no-construction, we believe that we should be allowed to construct the shops immediately. So long, the municipality had not bothered to check whether taxes were being paid or not. Now, why does it have to take this step after a tragedy?” a trader asked.
And finally, a day after the fire the Darjeeling Municipality has decided to lodge a police complaint against one of the owners of the razed market for ‘deserting the town during the fire’.
The Darjeeling municipality has decided to lodge a police complaint against one of the alleged owners of the market that was razed to the ground on Friday “for having left town at the time of the fire”.
The chairperson of the municipality, however, made it clear that a general diary against Abdul Manan did not mean the civic body was suggesting arson.
“We will lodge a general diary against Abdul Manan tomorrow as we have heard that he left town when the shops were on fire. The general dairy is, however, only a precautionary step and not to suggest anything else,” said chairperson Amar Singh Rai.
Records at the Anjuman-e-Islamia guesthouse in Darjeeling showed that Manan had come to town on April 10 from Varanasi and left “at 7am on April 20”. At that time, the fire was still raging in the market between HD Lama Road and NB Singh Road, though it was under control. More than 100 shops were destroyed in the fire and 21 families were rendered homeless.
“He left without informing any of the staff. The daily room rent at the guesthouse is Rs 100 and though he had cleared Rs 700, he left without paying the Rs 300 he owed us,” said a guesthouse staff member.
Sources said Manan stayed at the guesthouse whenever he visited Darjeeling to collect the rents. “I think he used to come here once a year,” said a staff member.
The municipality is worried that the rehabilitation could be delayed if the supposed owners of the land do not turn up. “We cannot do much on privately owned land,” said Rai.
The land was owned by Md Salauddin. After his death, the property seems to have been divided between Abdul Manan and another man. “We are trying to get the contact numbers of the current owners,” said Rai. However, the mutation records show the land has not been transferred to the two owners yet.
The municipality has declared the burnt area a “no construction zone” to prevent haphazard constructions.
But the civic body will soon start construction on the land between NB Singh Road and NH55 where some shops were also burnt as this space belongs to the municipality.