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Asia's Largest Haat Under Threat as Mamata Govt Tries to Evict Shop Owners Post-Fire

The gutted portion of Manglahaat, spread across two bighas of land, is only one of the 13 premises of the Haat.

Photo the gutted Manglahaat of howrah

Howrah: Najir Ali (52) is a mosquito net seller at Manglahaat in Howrah, Asia's largest "Haat" (marketplace) in sheer size and volume of trade. However, last Thursday (July 20) night proved to be a nightmare for the mosquito net seller, as well as for the 1000 other sellers, as their shops were all gutted in a devastating fire. 

According to reports, there are apprehensions about the source of the fire, and preliminary reports suggest the fire was man-made, emitting a kerosene smell during the devastating blaze. 

"About 15 lakhs worth of my products stored in the shop and stacked in a nearby godown have been gutted in the fire," said the resident of Panskura in East Medinipore district, who comes to the Haat, held twice a week on Monday and Tuesday. "Now the government wants us to be evicted from this place and move to Santragachi, which is a strict no-no for us. The government wants this land for its real estate value," said the owner of the Mosquito net shop.

He added that the gutted portion of Manglahaat, spread across two bighas of land, is one of the 13 premises of the Haat. The rest of the 12 premises did not catch fire. He also spoke of harassment meted out to the original shop owners by Shantiranjan Dey, the current administrator of the Haat. Originally, the land belonged to the Daw family of Howrah, and one Gangaram used to be the original administrator of the market. In the 80s decade, the MImani Group entered the Haat as an administrator.

Talking to NewsClick, Biswajit Ghosh, Secretary of Howrah Hawkers Samity, said that in 1987, the Haat was for the first time gutted in fire. At that time, the Left Front government took a proactive stance under the leadership of the then Howrah Mayor, Swadesh Chakraborty, and declared the government takeover of the haat premises. However, legal interventions stalled that takeover and the stall owners were left at the mercy of the administrator once again.

However, in 1987, the government took the onus so that all the shop holders get an allotment to sit in the reorganized Manglahaat, and not one shopkeeper was left in the lurch, said Nazir Ali, recounting the days of his teen years when he used to come to Manglahaat along with his father.

Most of the shops are more than 80 to 100 years old, and generation by generation, the business is being carried on in Manglahaat. It is also the largest haat complex in Asia, selling the largest number of readymade garments in India, and more than 8 to 10 lakhs people are dependent on Manglahaat, including about 60,000 'ostagors' and tailors directly dependent on Manglahaat for their daily livelihood.

"We are united in our struggle to get the debris immediately cleared off and shops be re-allotted to the original shop holders as soon as possible," said Sadrul Alam on July 27 when NewsClick visited the spot in Howrah. He also depicted how the Chief Minister came to the spot and issued veiled eviction threats to the shopkeepers, to which they said NO in a clear voice to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. She also promised to have a high-level probe and report to be placed within three days.

Three days have elapsed since, but no reports have been tabled, he rued. He added that the torture meted out by the present administrator, to whom a sum of Rs 5,000 per shop has to be given, and unless it is given, sufferings like the destruction of the materials stored in the godown to shop destruction are taken up by the goons owing allegiance to the administrator Shanti Ranjan Dey, who is a close to the ruling party, TMC.

There were two types of hawkers in the market, about 1000 shopkeepers who owned a shop in the market and hawkers who sold their wares on the footpath. Both of them stored their wares in the centralized godown of the Haat, which too was gutted in the fire, leading to a loss for over 1500 shopkeepers and hawkers.

Each shopkeeper in Manglahaat, known as the ostagars, used to have nearly 50 to 100 tailors working for them in home-based factories. This fire has rendered everybody homeless.

Badruz Ali Mollah, a shop owner whose shop had been gutted in the fire, recounted the scene in his mahalla near the Metiabruz area of Kolkata, at Santoshpur Akra. He said that nearly all of the mahalla is having no meal day after the fire broke out at the state marketplace.

"We are sure that the fire has been forced upon the poor ostagors (master Tailors) of the minority Muslim community of Manglahaat. Most of the ostagors are from the minority community," said CPI(M) Howrah district Secretary Dilip Ghosh in his talk with NewsClick. Investigations are eyewash here. Even the Howrah Corporation tried to stop the Haat, saying that the haat day should be on Sunday or Saturday, which is traditionally on Tuesday. The government is telling now to take Rs 5 lakh as loans, why there is no grant for the affected shop owners. It is before the Durgapuja that the haat clocks record sales. That time is advancing in the state. Before that, as soon as possible, the haat shop owners should be allotted their shops, he said, taking to NewsClick.

NewsClick also spoke to Arup Roy, Former CPI(M) MLA, and leader of Byabsayee Samity of Howrah, who said an immediate rehabilitation programme for the affected shop owners should be taken up. 

Manglahaat gets its name from the Haat, which happens to be held on Tuesday (Mangalbaar) in Bengali, and hence in colloquial Bengali, it is called Manglahaat. 

The government even tried to change this character of the Haat and told the businessfolks to have the Haat on Saturday, which the shop owners negated. Now it is being told that the METRO is coming to Howrah; hence Manglahaat should be shifted. All sorts of alibi are being given by the government to have the Haat shifted. 

The government is eyeing to give the huge land spanning 13 premises and multiple acres in the busy Howrah arterial road to the promoters for the construction of a mall after evicting the shop owners from their thriving marketplace to Santragachi, where a new market is being constructed, they alleged.

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