The Bhavnagar fire and my green sweater

RK Nagar
RK Nagar

Nagar had shared this article many months ago. He mentions “It could possibly be in 1979”. I wasn’t sure and wanted to confirm. I concede my memory is not good !

Thanks to the Internet , I was able to search this article, published in January 15, 1982 issue of India Today. Thus it is most likely that this fire incident at BVP happened in December of 1981.

Behla and I were watching a volleyball game on that fateful afternoon and a watchman from NDDB gate came and told us to contact Jhala Saheb urgently. We met Jhala Saheb and the three of us left for Bhavnagar. As we were about to reach Bhavnagar the sun was setting and we could clearly see on the horizon the flames and fumes in the distance. It was a horrifying scene.

I don’t recall the year. It could possibly be 1979. It was probably a Sunday or some other holiday. As I came out of my apartment C-9, and looked for my friends Behla and Shailendra Kumar (we three were on the same floor), I learnt that they had suddenly left for Bhavnagar. Bhavnagar Vegetable Products (BVP), the vegetable oil processing plant that NDDB had acquired an year ago under the oil project was on fire.

Both Behla and Shailendra were members of the Management Committee of BVP and late Shri GM Jhala was the Chairman. When they received the news of fire in freshly procured stock of groundnuts stored in the compound, the three left immediately for Bhavnagar.

They had no time to inform anyone else on this Sunday afternoon so they decided to reach the spot as early as possible, take stock of the situation and decide the next course of action.

The winters had set in and after dinner when I was about to go to bed, I received a call from Bhavnagar. It was Behla on the other side. “Nagar, Jhala Saab has decided to call you with a team of about 20 officers to help us fight the fire at BVP. The officers have been identified, they all live on campus, administration has been asked to make the travel arrangements and the bus will leave campus at 5 am sharp.”.

He then dictated to me the names of officers who were to form the team. With the admin officer, I went to each one’s apartment, told them to be ready and meet near office at 4.30 am. By the time this exercise was completed, it was past 12.
We left at 5 am sharp and the atmosphere in the bus was as if we were going on a picnic. We were laughing, joking and having fun unaware of what was in store for us. We all thought that we will first check-in into a hotel, freshen up, have breakfast and then go to the BVP.

But the administration had instructed the driver to take us straight to the plant. We too didn’t know what hotel we were booked into so it was logical that our first contact in Bhavnagar had to be with the plant manager KR Rao and the General Manager, Mr. RN Jain, who was on deputation to BVP from IDC. We reached BVP at 9 am.

We were greeted at the plant site by non other than Jhala Saab himself. “Get on with the job, pick those iron hooks and pull out burning bags, segregate the fully charged ones, also release the fire brigade personnel and hold the water hose to extinguish the fire. Quick, we have no time to lose”. It sounded more like an army General’s command.

There was no time to lose. The inferno was very intense and barely 20% contained after almost 20 hours of firefighting. All the fire tenders from Bhavnagar were pressed in service and additional fire tenders were summoned from nearby municipalities. The fire was massive.

This was the biggest fire Bhavnagar had ever witnessed. The oil oozing out burning groundnuts and wet jute begs only made the problem worse. It was a heady mix of fire, heavy black smoke and muddy water with burning oil flowing in every direction. It was a horrifying site. Everyone including Mr Jhala was a fireman that day.

We immediately swung into action. There was no time to lose. The tired fire brigade crew badly needed a break and so did Mr. Jhala, Behla, Shailendra, Jain, KR Rao and other officers of NDDB/IDC on deputation to BVP. They were themselves fighting fire continuously for nearly 14 hours.

It was a unique show of team work. Absolutely splendid. No one needed instructions. Everyone just got into action and worked tirelessly with only one objective- contain the fire as early as possible and minimise losses from this “deliberate act of sabotage”.

And since it was a chilly morning, I was wearing my “Green” pullover that I had bought the previous winter from “Phulkari” (Punjab Handicrafts Emporium) at Chandigarh. It was a very charming green with a simple but bold weave and I loved it.

We were taking turns and fighting the fire for the next 3 days. On the second day I was however put up with the accounts and inventory team to assess the damage and prepare the insurance claim. Late in the night when we reached the hotel, we were smelling of smoke and the smell was so intense that I couldn’t sleep that night. The clothing I wore on that day had to be washed and dried but the smell had set in so deep that nothing worked.

The green sweater, I loved was the worst casualty. After 4 days, we all returned to Anand but the smell was refusing to leave us. I had my sweater dry cleaned twice but the smell simply refused to go. It was so overpowering that even my wife and children felt awful as the poor green sweater made a reentry in my house from the dry cleaner.

On the fifth day, with a heavy heart, I had to say “goodbye” to my priced possession- my green sweater from Phulkari.

It had sacrificed itself on the alter of BVP fire. Amen.


Some links to related articles are given below. I would be grateful if readers help get more references and anecdotes.