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)

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