9 killed in Kolkata building collapse; opposition fires 'corruption' salvo at Mamata administration

An NDRF personnel during a rescue operation after an under-construction building collapsed, at Garden Reach area in Kolkata, Monday, March 18, 2024.
An NDRF personnel during a rescue operation after an under-construction building collapsed, at Garden Reach area in Kolkata, Monday, March 18, 2024.

Kolkata | The collapse of an illegal under-construction building in Kolkata's western fringes claiming at least nine lives and injuring 17 more early on Monday provoked a fierce political debate over whether the incident opened up yet another Pandora's box of corruption under the TMC regime in Bengal.

Despite some 18 hours having passed since the collapse, several people were still believed to have remained trapped inside the rubble, triggering apprehensions of a further rise in the death toll, which kept mounting through the day. The deceased included two women who lived in the vicinity.

In the aftermath of the five-storey building, allegedly being constructed by filling up a water body, crumbling down on neighbourhood shanties occupied by unsuspecting dwellers in the thickly-populated Azhar Mollah Bagan area of Garden Reach, state Leader of Opposition Suvendu Adhikari claimed that the locality teemed with no less than 800 such unauthorised buildings.

Demanding a court-monitored audit by central bodies like the CPWD into constructions in urban areas of the state, Adhikari set a one-month deadline for the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) to publish the list of authorised and unathorised structures in its 141 wards.

"I will also file RTIs with the KMC secretary seeking details of such constructions and bring the details out in public domain," he declared.

While Md Wasim, the promoter of the building, was arrested, the investigation into the collapse was handed over to the homicide department of the city police. IPC sections pertaining to murder, attempt to murder and criminal negligence were slapped on the accused, police said.

The building has been under construction since December 2022. It comprised 16 apartments, each of 500 square feet area, all of which were booked for sale, police sources said.

"There are several builders involved in the project. We are on the lookout for the others," a senior officer said.

Meanwhile, a show-cause notice was issued by the KMC to three officers of the ranks of executive engineer, assistant engineer and sub-assistant engineer for their possible "oversight" of the illegal construction, a top civic body official told PTI.

"The officers have been asked to reply within the next 48 hours and stringent actions could be taken against them if their responses were found unsatisfactory," he said.

Earlier in the day, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee visited the collapse site and assured locals of stern action against the promoters of illegal real estate. She also announced a compensation of Rs 5 lakh each to the next of kin of the deceased and Rs 1 lakh each to the injured.

"Sad to learn about the house collapse disaster of an under-construction building in the Garden Reach area of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. Our Mayor, Fire Minister, Secretaries and Commissioner of Police, civic, police, fire and disaster management officers and teams (including NDRF, KMC and KP teams) have been on site throughout the night for mitigating the disaster," the chief minister wrote on X on Monday morning.

"This was an illegal construction. I express my condolences to the family. I urge the administration to take strict action against those responsible for the disaster," she said, after visiting the injured at the state-run SSKM Hospital.

In her first public appearance since her fall at home and injuries on her forehead last Thursday, Banerjee was seen visiting the collapse site with a bandaged forehead.

Kolkata Mayor Firhad Hakim, who also happens to be the local MLA besides holding the state urban department portfolio, admitted that the structure was unauthorised, but passed the buck on to the previous regime of the state.

"It has been a trend here and also in some other areas since the Left Front era," Hakim said.

He also stated that there could have been a "lapse on the part of the officials" for failing to monitor whether constructions in the locality were being made in accordance with law.

Alleging that the local TMC councillor Shams Iqbal was involved in the real estate scam in the area, Adhikari demanded his arrest.

"The mayor and the chief minister, too, cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility of the deaths of so many innocent people," the BJP leader said.

Defending the councillor, Hakim said, "It is not the job of a local councillor but of the civic body officials to inspect whether constructions are taking place according to sanctioned plans from KMC."

TMC national general secretary Abhishek Banerjee, responded, stating this wasn't the time to play politics over a tragedy.

"I tell the opposition leaders raising questions that politics can wait. We will have enough time to do politics later. At the moment, we should focus on rescuing the people who are stuck. We hope that such incidents are not repeated. All institutions should work in tandem," he said.

Reacting sharply to Hakim's allegation, CPI(M) Rajya Sabha member and former Kolkata mayor Bikash Bhattacharya wondered what the TMC was doing during its 12-year rule even if such an accusation was considered true for the sake of argument.

"If anything bad happens in the state, the TMC finds it convenient to blame the erstwhile Left Front government," Bhattacharya told PTI, rubbishing the mayor's claim.

Bengal Governor C V Ananda Bose also visited the accident site and spoke to the locals, rescue workers and police personnel posted there. Later, he visited the hospital and met the injured.

Speaking to the media, Bose said, "The helpless people die of no fault of theirs. This is a human failure. There is a lapse on the part of the builder, but the failure of supervisors is greater. They have failed miserably in their duties."

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