A Howrah neighbourhood parched of patience after going without tap water for months blocked the Vidyasagar Setu toll plaza for two hours on Thursday, triggering a miles-long logjam that the police brass didn’t know of until 45 minutes after it began.
By the time Rapid Action Force personnel arrived to chase away the protesters and arrest 12 of them for arson, the trail of stranded vehicles extended till Rabindra Sadan on the Calcutta side and Ankurhati on NH-6, beyond Kona Expressway.
In one of those vehicles, an ambulance, lay middle-aged Amala Ghosh from Malda. Her family was taking her to a Bypass hospital from the railway station when they ran into the roadblock. At least three other ambulances carrying critically ill patients were stranded near Mandirtala.
“My aunt is in a critical condition with high fever for several days, but they are not even letting ambulances pass. Why aren’t the police doing anything?” demanded one of Amala’s relatives, pacing up and down the side of the road leading to the toll plaza.
The watch showed 12.15pm. Howrah’s first police commissioner, Ajey Ranade, was then in his office, yet unaware of the blockade that had begun at 11.30am barely 3km away. Ranade, who took charge on Thursday, was telling reporters how the new commissionerate would transform policing on the other side of the river when someone asked him about the roadblock.
The commissioner immediately deputed a colleague to head for the site. “I have asked my officers to take appropriate measures to clear the roadblock,” he announced.
A team from Hastings, led by assistant commissioner A.K. Jana, and another two from Howrah and Shibpur police stations reached the toll plaza within minutes. But the protesters wouldn’t budge. Some pelted the police with stones, inviting a lathicharge.
Residents of minority-dominated Tarafdarpara, Kajipara, Munshi Sheikh Taibulla Lane and Natun Basti — all off the Setu — had apparently suffered since May, when water supply became irregular. Over the past couple of months, they haven’t received a drop, one of the protesters said.
“My wife has to queue up in front of the community well at 2am and her turn doesn’t come before 6am. Relatives are visiting us for Id and it is frustrating to go without something as basic as water,” complained Mohammad Islam.
The immediate trigger for Thursday’s protest was the authorities’ failure to resume water supply even on Id.
Although the police managed to disperse the crowd, the stone-pelting allegedly continued from atop houses along the Setu. A section of the protesters damaged a bus and a private car. Some ransacked the toll plaza counters.
The RAF chased some of the arsonists into their homes to arrest them. Residents of the area alleged that the cops targeted even those who weren’t involved in the protest.
“They banged hard on the main door and windows of my house. My seven-year-old son was so scared…. I told them there were no men in the house, but they kicked the door open. It broke in half. The cops went back when they didn’t find anybody,” said Gulsana Begum, 22.
Hannan Tarafdar, 60, was found in his ransacked roadside shop putting an ice pack to his wounds. “I lost Rs 13,000 in the melee. I wasn’t even part of the blockade,” he rued. At least 15 people, including four cops, were injured.