By Special Correspondent
PUNE—More than 600 shops at Pune Camp’s famous Fashion Street were reduced to ashes in a midnight fire incident which is being alleged by the stall holders to be an incident of sabotage. The incident took place on Friday around 11.30 in the night after the market was locked and the stall holders had left for their homes. No sooner than the fire broke out, the entire two km radius of the market which is known for its affordable clothing shops came under the blaze and was reduced to ashes.
Fashion Street adjacent to upmarket MG Road is a famous shopping destination that houses small stalls selling garments, shoes, goggles and other accessories. According to stall holders association, there were 448 registered shops and over 200 unauthorised hawkers operated in the market.
Most of the shopkeepers are Muslims and have been into business for over three decades. The stall holders lost goods worth over Rs 10 lakh each and total losses have been pegged to be around Rs 20 crores. There were no casualties reported but the sudden death of Pune Cantonment Board’s (PCB) fire department Prakash Hasabe in a road accident while returning home after putting out the fire, has once again brought the sabotage angle at the fore.
Meanwhile, the stall holders association has demanded immediate release of compensation by the cantonment board under whose jurisdiction the market is situated. Its President Advocate M V Akolkar said, “The cantonment administration must permit the stall holders to start their business at the earliest and ensure that they get their right to livelihood. It is over a week and nothing much has moved on ground in terms of relief and rehabilitation. The restoration work has to be started as the stall holders are facing serious economic challenges due to the closure of their businesses,” he said.
A stall holder Sajid Shaikh said, “The fire incident at Fashion Street is fishy as it seems to be an incident of sabotage. How can the entire area catch fire within a few minutes and get burnt. The fire brigade was delayed in responding to the fire situation while there was negligible presence of policemen on ground to assist the citizens and control law and order. It is but understood that since the issue is related to muslims, the administration and police have an inbuilt bias against the community and it is reflected from its response during such critical times. Initially policemen lathi-charged the stall holders and later the locals came out to help the stall holders but the administration proved to be most ineffective in this case,” he said.
Qasim Qureshi, a stall holder who lost goods over 10 lakh, said, “Most of my goods were garments and shoes which were burnt. I had borrowed money from my friends and relatives as Ramzan is round the corner. However, I lost everything in the fire and there is no help coming from the board administration. We strongly feel that vested interests are behind the fire as they could not see the community members growing. We demand a detailed police investigation into the case and the culprits be punished.”
Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar visited the spot a few days ago with Pune District Collector Rajesh Deshmukh and has asked him to prepare a report on the fire incident. Pawar has hinted that all the hawkers would be awarded compensation in lieu of the losses during the fire.
AIMIM MP Imtiaz Jaleel took to twitter and smelt a conspiracy behind the fire incident. He tweeted, “This just can’t be coincidence that two most prime markets of Pune and both in Cantonment area reduced to ashes in a span of few days! Some foul play! Thorough probe needed. Govt/Cantonment should instantly give relief to small shopkeepers.”
Talking about the death of Pune Cantonment Board Fire brigade chief Prakash Hasabe, he tweeted, “And then the chief fire officer Prakash Hasabe of Pune Cantonment Board dies in road accident while returning home early morning after dousing the fire. Coincidence!!! ”
The PCB is facing a shortfall of GST revenues worth Rs 200 crores which has affected development work across the entire Pune Cantonment area. The victims of Fashion Street Fire are facing tough time and meeting parliamentarians, legislators, board administrative officers and the district administration for funds.
Meanwhile, Jamaat-e- Islami Hind, Pune and Azam Campus have come forward to help and rehabilitate the fire victims.