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Up in flames! Govt needs to make its own buildings safe and set an example- June 23, 2012

Some shocking finds about the Mumbai Mantralaya Fire that has killed 5 and injured more and took over 12 hours to douse. The building that houses the Chief Minister’s office and is the seat of power for the state of Maharashtra, now stands rather gutted.

1- No fire officer was present when the fire tenders reached

2- The fire tenders could not access the building because of badly parked vehicles outside!

3- Fire alarms and sprinklers were defunct

4- The last fire audit took place in 2008 and suggestions went unheeded. “The report mentioned 32 potential hazards such as civil and electrical defects, encroachment due to parking of vehicles in open space around the building, files and old records strewn on the floors, storage of scrap material on all floors, and use of cylinders for cooking on some floors”, according to an RTI activist named Anil Galgali

It is unforgivable for government offices to flout safety requirements, considering it is supposed to regulate and ensure implementation of laws and codes related to safety. When people died in the Uphaar cinema fire in Delhi way back in 1997, citizens were mad. The legal proceedings still carry on. The builder, Ansal, has been in a tight spot, even jailed for the negligence in terms of fire safety.

As far as I am concerned, someone should take the Maharashtra government to task for negligence as well. People died, were severely injured and a public building stands ruined. Public funds will be needed to refurbish/redevelop it. A conviction will send shock waves to governments across Indian states and cities, urge them to pay heed to the upkeep of public infrastructure. They should be setting an example really!

Urgent need for appropriate materials to rebuild burnt jhuggi- ideas welcome! April 2, 2012

Pawan Varma’s ‘When loss is gain’, which I just finished reading brought forth an interesting commentary on how many of us view life and especially deal with loss, trauma and sorrow. Some of us withdraw from life’s small pleasures, believing that it was our unquenchable desire that led to disappointment and loss. Others place their faith in a higher being, and yoyo between God and self pity. A few do learn to move on, finding pleasure and comfort in life. From what I have seen, moving on has a lot to do with showing the door to our infamous companion- the ego so that we can try new things, savour fresh experiences and live again.
For the residents of the slum in project Jalti Jhopdi (do visit our facebook page to like and contribute) however, picking up the threads of life at present is all about dealing with practicalities-rebuilding their homes, finding utensils and clothes, food. They don’t talk about the trauma and the sorrow, but it is there just under the skin covered up with all the urgency of the raw needs of human life.
In two days we have seen a mixed response from people to our appeal for help. A few driven individuals have offered their time and taken initiative, taking care to understand needs and mobilising resources. Others have contributed money and things selflessly and with speed. Many are yet to respond, failing to gather the empathy needed for an act of charity.
Our group is focusing on specific forms of help (kiddie slippers, terracotta pots to store water, temporary tenting to give kids a roof over their heads are on their way to being done and we are targeting utensils as well; another group has teamed with the local mosque to provide gas cylinders, food, clothes, etc). We are facing roadblocks in identifying appropriate material for their roofs and walls. We need low cost, safe, non flammable, light sheets of material that can be tied to the bamboo frames that have already been erected on site. If anyone knows of how to do this, please contact me.
Other roadblocks are toilets and sanitation, plus some sort of cooperative banking system that can help them keep their little amounts of cash safe and provide them credit for specific needs. Addressing these is a long term project, but the opportunity to provide them better shelter should be tapped. Ideas are welcome!


Positivity in the face of disaster: Our experience at Gurgaon’s burnt down slum- March 31, 2012

A slum of about 80 houses burnt down in Sector 57 in Gurgaon yesterday.  When a group of us visited this morning, the sight was not pretty (see pics below). The fire happened in the daytime when everyone was at work but all the children were in the slum being watched by a few adults. By some miracle, no lives were lost. Everything these poor families possessed- clothes, vessels, savings, documents- was lost to the fire, that consumed the jhuggi in 12 minutes flat!

Staring at empty space where their homes stood just a day ago!

Charred remains of things essential

At site, we found people sitting around in various moods. Despondent, sad, industrious, belligerent, curious, resigned and even indifferent. We gathered within minutes that this is a community of migrants, predominantly Muslim, coming from West Bengal. A few families from Bihar, MP and UP live here as well, but relations are strained between the various linguistic groups.

Nobody is aggressive towards us though and they are more than willing to share information, talk about their lives, what they need, how things work or don’t work in their jhuggi, etc. In fact, some of the conversations are so normal to almost be surreal if you consider these people, who are already living on so little, just lost everything they have! They don’t focus on what they lost, they want to talk about how to rebuild their lives.

The realities of their lives hit me over and over, walking through the charred remains of their homes. Kids don’t go to school. Most residents are cleaners, domestic workers, rickshaw pullers, etc. Cellphones are common. The homes are tiny, most able to accomodate only about three adults sleeping side by side. Yet there were no tears, kids played around cheerfully, I saw little anguish and no greed for what we would possibley give them. Only an expression of genuine need.

Jhuggi dwellers told us that the first response was by the local mosque, which distributed clothes and provided food. The maulvi assured us when we spoke to him later, that the mosque would continue to supply food. Some government departments have reportedly provided some bits of help- a water tanker, some clothes, food. Our team that has had experience with disaster relief before (they ran the super successful Mission Julley in the aftermath of the Ladakh flash flood), felt immediate and sustained and above all, organized efforts are required to really meet the needs of these families.

A positive experience came in the form of a couple of contractors who were building on plots nearby. They had seen the jhuggi burn down yesterday and they were shaken. They promised to get together a group of their friends working in the vicinity to support our work monetarily or in whatever way possible, promptly sharing their contact information and standing with us till the end of the visit.

There’s a lot to be done and fast! We’re chalking out a plan to move ahead and help these families. I will convey the details soon via facebook and twitter.

My blog will continue to follow the story of this jhuggi for the next few days. I have in mind to write about the condition of housing and the system of administration in such communities, the unique systems they develop for survival in a harsh urban environment, the lack of initiative I observed in then to form a community and analysis of why, and of course, how we are able to help and our experiences whole doing so…..Keep reading!

Resilience & buzzing activity at Russell Market, Bangalore- March 26, 2012

Earlier this month on a work trip to Bangalore, I had written about how traders in the city’s Russell Market were taking a private initiative to rebuild it without waiting for the city authorities to do so. This trip gave me the time and opportunity to see for myself.

I found a bustling market in Shivaji Nagar, in the heart of the city’s busy shopping district near Commercial Street. Visiting on a Sunday, we saw crowds pouring out after finishing mass at St Mary’s Basilica, the oldest church in the city, which is right opposite the market. The streets were lined with vendors and it was a bit of a mela. Russell Market is an Indo Saracenic structure built in the 1920s like much of this part of the city, which was known back then as Blackpully.

The char marks left by the fire were apparent on the exteriors and interiors of the market. Inside, the place was a medley of assorted wares–flowers, vegetables, fish, meat, fruits, poultry, even shops dedicated to prawns! The trade seemed to be largely in the hands of Muslim tradesmen; having driven through a few districts in Karnataka the past few days, I could see that the influence of Islam runs deep and is seeped into the fabric of this region; and the obviously Islamic character of the shopkeepers was not surprising at all.

Naked, dangling wires were everywhere. Apparently, this was the cause of the fire, which had gutted 123 shops and required 29 fire tenders working five hours to douse! Traders have accused the city municipal corporation of having neglected their repeated complaint to fix the wiring.The corporation did compensate shop owners though (to the tune of Rs 50,000 reportedly), and the money is being put to good use from the look of the renovation work that is proceeding full steam. The renovation is focused on the most damaged part of the market. The rest of the place continues with business despite the charred walls and structure; the walls have been painted over where necessary and life goes on. Of course, poking around with camera did attract some curious stares, but none   hostile! Finally, one vendor asked me which newspaper I work for. When he learnt I am an architect, he seemed delighted. And I had to make a swift getaway lest he expected instant advice on the interior remodeling of his shop!

I returned with a sense of hope at the resilience of the ordinary person in this country. Despite systems breaking down all around, Indians have the knack to refuse to be intimidated by obstacles and Russell Market’s traders epitomized this. I was saddened, however, by the neglect of this lovely building by the city. Clearly a heritage structure, a public place that must occupy a significant place in the public memory of this city’s inhabitants, Russell Market deserves a better deal.

Market entrance

Buzzing streetside activity in this predominantly Muslim neighborhood

Naked wires, charred walls

Hindu Gods and puja flowers share the space too

Charred walls have been whitewashed over and the market is buzzing again

Architectural delight

Lots of meat. This was one organized market....

The new interiors...not much heritage, but who can blame shopkeepers for wanting modern finishes!

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