Thursday, October 22, 2009

Fighting urban fires

Cityscapes column on InfoChange India News & Features

By Kalpana Sharma

The urban poor do not worry about earthquakes or floods as much as they do about fires that frequently destroy their inflammable, densely-packed dwellings. In Mumbai, where half the population lives and works from slums, there is no disaster management plan, and only 1,503 fire hydrants out of 10,371 work.


This year the monsoon seems to be taking its time to recede. Just when reports began appearing in the media about the monsoon ending, vast swathes of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and parts of Maharashtra were flooded as unusually heavy rains led to widespread devastation.

While seasonal floods are a hazard faced in many parts of India (and they usually get more coverage in the media if they also affect the bigger cities), the frequent disasters that visit particularly poor people in urban areas throughout the year are often overlooked.

Even during the rains, the poor suffer far more than those living in permanent housing. Each year, the monsoon rains in Mumbai bring with them landslides that bury scores of hutments occupied by the city’s burgeoning population of urban poor. Despite repeated notices from the municipal corporation, these people continue to perch on hill slopes and remain optimistic that they will survive the monsoon, because they simply do not have an alternative.

Perhaps in recognition of this, the Slum Improvement Board, under the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA), builds retaining walls on vulnerable hillsides. But every year, most of these retaining walls give way under the weight of accumulated silt and water seepage, which weaken the walls. When the wall breaks, it is like a dam that has burst. The force of the water, boulders and mud is much greater than in a normal landslide. In its path, flimsy homes and the belongings of scores of poor people are swept away.

On September 4, 2009, a huge landslide killed 11 people in Mumbai’s Saki Naka area. Not far from the site of this disaster is another site that was affected during the July 26, 2005, rains and where 73 people died. Earlier, in the year 2000, 78 people were killed in a landslide in Azad Nagar, Ghatkopar. Of the 107 landslide-prone areas identified by the BMC, most are in the Saki Naka area.

Many of the retaining walls are, in any case, notional. In 2009, for instance, according to newspapers, the Maharashtra government sanctioned Rs 17.4 crore for 183 retaining walls to be repaired, constructed or built. But work sanctioned in 2007 was still pending -- of the 199 works sanctioned that year, only 111 were completed, 58 were still being worked on, and 30 had not yet started.

Such disasters cannot be called ‘natural’. Nature might help speed them up, but they are waiting to happen at any time. And the solution for these disasters is not just emergency measures and disaster plans but a long-term vision of how to deal with the housing crisis for the poor in cities like Mumbai.

Even landslides get their due in the media when they happen. But there is one category of urban disaster that is not taken seriously; nor are the root causes of these accidents or disasters acknowledged. This is the disaster caused by fires that break out with uncanny regularity in the slums of most big cities.

Fires in well-known locations -- in high-rises where the better-off live and work -- draw considerable attention from the government and the media. Usually, after a fire in an office building in a metro city, the media runs articles on fire hazards in high-rises, raises questions about whether the fire department is adequately equipped to deal with such fires, whether buildings are following the fire safety norms, whether the space around the buildings is adequate for fire engines and for firemen to operate during such disasters, etc.

But increasingly, a major section of India’s urban population does not work and live in such buildings. In Mumbai, for instance, more than half the population lives and works out of informal structures, many built of extremely inflammable material. Fires in slums are so common that they pass unnoticed except when they spread and threaten nearby formal structures, or when there is notable loss of life.

Mike Davis, in his book Planet of Slums, points out: “The urban poor do not lose much sleep at night worrying about earthquakes or even floods. Their chief anxiety is a more frequent and omnipresent threat: fire. Slums, not Mediterranean brush or Australian eucalypti as claimed in some textbooks, are the world’s premier fire ecology. The mixture of inflammable dwellings, extraordinary density, and dependence on open fires for heat and cooking is a superlative recipe for spontaneous combustion. A simple accident with cooking gas or kerosene can quickly become a mega-fire that destroys hundreds or even thousands of dwellings. Fire spreads through shanties at extraordinary velocity and fire-fighting vehicles, if they respond, are often unable to negotiate narrow slum lanes.”

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Monday, October 05, 2009

A different politics

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, October 4, 2009



Women in Kavthepiran, a village in western Maharashtra, show how it is possible for ordinary people to have a stake in electoral politics and transform public life.

Sanghi and Kavthepiran are two sides of the same coin....

Photo: D.B. Patil

Mandate for change: Women representatives at a zilla panchayat meeting in Belgaum.

Assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana are just around the corner. In Maharashtra, the scene is even more confused than it was during the General Elections. The only thing people can state with certainty is that it will be a fractured mandate. And that dynastic politics is a bug that has bitten all political parties, not just the Congress. So the sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law of a range of politicians of different hues are contesting these elections. Yet, what they have to promise is neither new nor, it would seem, interesting for the aam admi or aurat. In fact, the one fact that comes through in the media reports where journalists have spoken to ordinary people is the increasing disillusionment with politicians and with politics.

In the midst of this rather bleak scenario, reports of a different kind of politics come as a breath of fresh air, and also provide a sliver of hope that another way is possible. In September, communal riots broke out in some villages and towns of Sangli district in Maharashtra’s sugar belt. As usually happens with this kind of news, there is a flurry of stories. And then, when peace returns, there is no further news. But from the initial spate of stories, the name of one village stood out — Kavthepiran.

Not your typical village

In some ways, Kavthepiran is just another typical village in western Maharashtra with a population of around 15,000 people. But it is exceptional for a variety of reasons.

This difference is what made the story of Kavthepiran so interesting. The village came into the news because the communal incidents, sparked by a provocative video circulating through the Internet and the depiction of the fight between Shivaji and Afzal Khan on a Ganesh pandal, led to a mosque in the village being damaged. The hundred-odd Muslim families who had lived for generations in the village took fright and wanted to leave.

The women of Kavthepiran intervened and prevented such an exodus from taking place. The 17-member Panchayat in the village consists entirely of women. They decided not just to repair the mosque but also to personally approach the Muslim families and assure them that they would be looked after. Since then Kavthepiran has disappeared from the news. Good news and peace are not really news.

Possibility of change

But the story of the transformation of this village needs to be told again because it is an example of what is possible even within existing systems of electoral politics. Until 2000, Kavthepiran had nothing to distinguish itself from other villages. Its claim to fame was excessive alcoholism, crime and filth. One man, Bhimrao Mane, ruled the village with his acolytes. No one else could have a say.

In 2001, Bhimrao went through something of a change of heart. On October 2, he called a meeting of the village, a Gram Sabha. Kavthepiran’s women used the occasion to express their disgust with the state of affairs and threatened to migrate from the village en masse. Bhimrao listened and publicly promised to personally give up alcohol and to ensure that it was not sold in the village. Taking the cue from him, the village women went around and destroyed all the liquor shops and stills in the village. Their campaign did not end there. If anyone was caught drunk in the village, his head was shaved and he was paraded on a donkey. Not exactly a democratic way of functioning but perhaps they felt that public shaming was the only effective way of curbing alcoholism.

In the elections that followed, women got elected to the Panchayat. With enthusiasm, they went about cleaning the village and successfully won the State Government’s Sant Gadebaba Abhiyan award for the cleanest village. Three years later, in 2006, they won the Nirmal Gram village award from the Central Government for having completely stopped open defecation. The majority of the houses in the village now have private toilets and public toilets have been built for those who cannot afford to build their own.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)