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Tanzeel Merchant
Urbanist, wanderer and flâneur who relishes complexity

A fire started, people died, and it didn’t seem to matter

Mumbai, Friday, November 22, 2013

I want to share this story. It was a timely reminder for me, of what the reality is in the country I grew up in, and though I no longer live here, I do owe so much to it.

I have been in Mumbai for a week now. The morning newspaper, one of many that ensure India has the highest per-capita circulation of newsprint in the world, had a cover story on the Canada Pension Plan investing $250 million in a new $500 million company that would fund real estate development in India. The story that I am sharing below however barely had a mention in the print edition, or online.

A fire started late in the morning on Thursday, a few minutes away from our family home in the Colaba and Cuffe Parade area. Like most of Mumbai, apartments for the middle class and “up”, jostle for space with swathes of slums. In the picture below, the fine-grained texture of the nearby slums is quite visible beside the apartment buildings in their sea of trees.

Apartment buildings for the affluent in their sea of trees jostle for space with swathes of slums. Colaba and Cuffe Parade area.

Apartment buildings for the affluent in their sea of trees jostle for space with swathes of slums. Colaba and Cuffe Parade area. (Source: Google Maps)

These slums supply all our homes with helpers, workers and services that the City will not acknowledge exist. They are also home to caregivers and “servants” that have and still do work for people like “us”. They’re family for us, and I’ve known many of them since I was a child.

When the news started to spread, there was utter panic. Residents in high-rise buildings beside it saw it first, and millions of text messages charged the air in this cellphone savvy city. My brother got in the car with the helpers who were at home and drove into the slums to help them pack their valuables into the car. They brought their things to our home for safekeeping. Many others like him left their flats and apartments to go and help, a state of cohabitation described beautifully by a word I learned earlier this year– “convivence”.

The fire blazes through the slums on Cuffe Parade (Image: @nonitakalra on twitter)

The fire blazes through the slums on Cuffe Parade (Image Courtesy: @nonitakalra on twitter)

The fire spread quickly, but was extinguished quickly too. People hauled gas cylinders out of their shanties to prevent a daisy-chain sequence of explosions. The mafia that control these areas of the city deliver far better services than the municipality can. The fire brigade made an appearance too. Still, hundreds of thousands of people fled. The public school kept the kids back an hour to keep them safe. Till late at night, the street outside our building was a river of tens of thousands of people returning to their homes.

The huts and shanties that the the bais, babus and driver who work for my parents call home are fine, as are their families. Others weren’t as lucky. Shocking stories emerged of the more affluent buildings closing and locking their gates to prevent [poor] people from coming in to take shelter. This morning I heard stories from the mouths of those that live in the slums, of bodies still being found in burned plastic tarp, and over forty kids who were too young to be at school, perishing. Though anecdotal, there is no doubt that the death toll has been significant.

The few mainstream media outlets that did bother to cover this story, made passing mention of just one person dying and got the location and name of the slum wrong, placing it several hours north of where it actually is.

While the haves revel in their ostentatious displays of wealth, and the Canada Pension Plan’s decision to find higher returns is celebrated, there is little space in what is the “new India” to acknowledge the silent majority in this city, let alone grieve for their loss.

One of many rumours circulating has it that a real estate developer started the fire, in an attempt to gain control of the land. That isn’t unusual in the battle for the valuable real estate that these slums occupy. If it is true, then maybe a well-intentioned international pension fund will lend this builder the money to build more homes for the wealthy on those ashes. Wouldn’t that be sweet?

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I am shocked and sorry to find this news so late. Although I check news portals and e-papers daily but surprisingly I have never found this news anywhere. Don't know whom to blame, myself for the ignorance or the so called news outlets. Felt the pain of the Mumbaikars who suffered and felt proud for the Mumbaikar who helped their fellows.
Lalit, a belated thank you for your comment and the thoughts you've shared here. As long as there are people who care, we can make a difference.
" No one is actually ready to save or help the mumbaikars (middle and lower class) and the Rich migrants from other states who can easily afford property worth millions easily because of their fathers black money...... not the government nor the political party is interested ... I bet 10 years down the line all the middle and lower class will be forced to leave mumbai and shift somewhere in other cities like banglore, baroda etc etc or go back to their native...with no Options left ...
Thank you for posting your comments Rathod. I appreciate your sharing them here and thank you for that. You tread a fine line in making statements like "Rich migrants from other states who can easily afford property worth millions easily because of their fathers black money". It's always easy to blame the outsider and simplify complex issues with statements like that. There are good and bad people on every side of the economic divide, irrespective of ethnicity or background, and it would be prudent to look at the issues for what they really are i.e. poverty, media bias etc.
There are three mumbais -- one for affluent class who dont care, middle class mumbai -- who just crib but dont act and struggling class mumbai -- where people cant afford to waste time on cribbing actions of one class however are response to other class's action The friction of classes is building up since decades, likely to burst someday Builders are the people who have made mumbai unaffordable and dirty
Tanzeel Merchant
Thank you for your comment on this blog post Yograj M. We have seen how ugly the bursts that come out of the friction you talk about can be. I hope for all of us that there are few of them, and far between. - tanzeelio
Aishwarya Gulati
There is, quite expectedly, no follow up in the media. In a manner of brushing off the incident, we were shown visuals of similar fires that took place in other parts of the city. Election manifestos ring loud and clear. Promises. Promises. Promises to the numbed democracy that we have become. There is no more news on what actually happened. No probe. A mere chronicle of events. We are a city of survive if you can.
Tanzeel Merchant
It was sad what happened. I hoped in the days that followed that more people would care, but that didn't happen. What has Mumbai become? Thank you for sharing your thoughts and comments. Let's hope things get better and not worse. - tan(zeelio)
Totally agree with you you. My wife used to teach many children from there being with an NGO and i also know most of them. Pretty hardworking lot , that was. I was strangely surprised myself that a fire in a mega slum colony deserves no mention on the prime time news and all i saw was a ticker running..not even breaking news.... All due respects, if MMS has upset stomach, that will make the headline and not this. I am overwhelmed!
Thank you for sharing your thoughts Partha. It is heartbreaking, and especially so because nobody cared. Is this the kind of world we want to live in? Is Mumbai different from other cities in this respect?
 
 
Tanzeel Merchant
Follow Tanzeel on twitter: @tanzeelio and via the "+ Follow" option on this page.

Tanzeel Merchant relishes complexity and feels that conflict can be a constructive experience - it makes for better, more resilient outcomes. Based in Toronto, with proven expertise in long-range growth and infrastructure management, strategic planning and implementation, and stakeholder engagement private, public, and non-profit sectors, Tanzeel is also an architect, urban designer, writer, financial advisor, and flâneur.

Tanzeel has led the implementation of Ontario’s award-winning Places to Grow initiatives. He is currently on a leave of absence from the Province of Ontario, working in Alberta with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Government of Alberta, and the energy Industry to plan for a better, more sustainable future in the rapidly growing Athabasca Oil Sands region, home to the world’s third largest oil reserve.

Tanzeel has journeyed with his professional, academic and community-building interests and through five cities on three continents. He thrives on delivering on the impossible, but never at the cost of his integrity. He likes that the days in his life have meaning, and no two days are the same.

In his words, "My efforts have changed the world I live in, and will shape a better future than the one I inherited."
 
 
 
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March 08, 2014 18:52 pm by Tanzeel Merchant
Thank you for posting your comments Rathod. I appreciate your sharing them here and thank you for that. You tread a fine line in making statements like "Rich migrants from other states who can easily afford property worth millions easily because of their fathers black money". It's always easy to bla...
Tanzeel Merchant
Tanzeel Merchant
March 08, 2014 18:48 pm by Tanzeel Merchant
Lalit, a belated thank you for your comment and the thoughts you've shared here. As long as there are people who care, we can make a difference.
December 12, 2013 16:52 pm by Lalit
I am shocked and sorry to find this news so late. Although I check news portals and e-papers daily but surprisingly I have never found this news anywhere. Don't know whom to blame, myself for the ignorance or the so called news outlets. Felt the pain of the Mumbaikars who suffered and felt proud ...
December 10, 2013 18:36 pm by matang rathod
" No one is actually ready to save or help the mumbaikars (middle and lower class) and the Rich migrants from other states who can easily afford property worth millions easily because of their fathers black money...... not the government nor the political party is interested ... I bet 10 years down...
December 05, 2013 16:08 pm by Tanzeel Merchant
Thank you for your comment on this blog post Yograj M. We have seen how ugly the bursts that come out of the friction you talk about can be. I hope for all of us that there are few of them, and far between. - tanzeelio