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India’s Haphazard Development Results in the Loss of Innocent Lives, Yet Again

The young Khushboo Mehta rang in her 29th Birthday with her friends and family on Dec. 28, 2017, in the rooftop restaurant ‘1Above’ located in Central Mumbai. Khushboo clad in a black top relished the chocolate flavoured cake while struggling to make sense of all the wishes and greetings amidst the loud music that filled the pub. Her friends took little time in uploading a video of a laughing Khushbu cutting her cake as she denied to do the honours as one of her friends teased her.

India’s Haphazard Development Results in the Loss of Innocent Lives, Yet Again.

She was one of the fourteen people who died in the fire that blazed in the Kamala Mills compound in the Lower Parel region of Mumbai on the fateful night of Dec. 28, 2017. The fire which killed 14 and injured 21 people is said to have started at the 1 Above Restaurant and spread to the Mojo’s Bistro on the third floor one level below as it gutted the makeshift roof made of tarpaulin and bamboo sticks. There were collectively over 250 guests in both the restaurants — all of them running helter-skelter searching for the sole exit which was not demarcated. Since the compound also houses the broadcasting offices of many media companies, the transmissions of many TV channels were also interrupted and many still haven’t regained transmissions because of major infrastructural losses.

While the cause of the fire remains unknown to the authorities, it has spurred the civic administration into action, leading to inspections, demolitions and even the arrest of two people. The sudden burst of activity on the part of civic authorities to demolish illegal structures is all too familiar and expected — it is a knee-jerk reaction to show that something is being done. Soon enough, things will return to normal — both owners and the authorities will lapse into their usual ways of doing things.

The old mill district of Mumbai has undergone some major metamorphosis in the recent decades. Back to the 1990s, when the mills in the area were shutting down and the government allowed mill owners to commercially exploit their properties without setting up guidelines for the civic good. The area now houses chrome and steel buildings, offices, expensive tower blocks, malls and tony restaurants, the otherwise dull-looking office space suddenly turns lively, with people visiting pubs and restaurants which have come up in the recent years.

In this metamorphosis from an old working-class area to a rich people’s playground, zoning laws and safety regulations have been ignored.

The sprawling 37-acre compound is now bursting at the seams with new eateries popping up with little or no prospect for any fundamental alteration such as making emergency exits. What happened in the rooftop restaurants during the early hours of Dec. 28. is a grim reminder of the haphazard recasting that the area has undergone. The movement in the mills is terribly restricted as its crammed up with 35 restaurants sticking into each other. Here, cars are constantly dropping off people and the traffic is constantly jam-packed, with no space for even the pedestrians, let alone a fire engine. The number of exits is far from enough. The victims at 1Above weren’t able to escape and were asphyxiated while taking shelter in the toilets which was also later revealed to be illegal construction by the pub’s owners.

The fire safety situation in India is pretty alarming. A ministry of the home-affairs sponsored study shows that of the minimum 8,559 fire stations needed in the country, only 2,087 are in place, with a whooping shortage of 65%. Urban areas alone require an additional 4,200 fire stations just to meet the minimum standard for response time. A total of 59 people die in the country due to fire accidents on a daily basis which are majorly women (62%).

Metropolitan Cities like Mumbai in the country are growing so rapidly without basic infrastructures like fire stations and hospitals thus causing gross violations of the law and risking lives in the process. As India’s cities turn rather vertical, fighting a fire from outside has become a herculean task given the population density and traffic situation in most of the cities. Buildings now require inbuilt fire-fighting equipment like sprinklers and functional alarms.

Mumbai has the prestige of being India’s biggest city and of being the financial capital of the country of 1.3 billion people. Even though this ‘city of dreams’ harbours the social and economical elite of the country — everyone from film stars to corporate biggies, the city’s basal infrastructure is failing with its clogged drains and overburdened public transport system. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (Mumbai’s civic body) is currently being reigned by the incumbent Bhartiya Janata Party which had built its campaign for the 2014 general election on the promises of development and sustainable change in the country. It’s very surprising how the same faction has steadily proven itself to be a failure at effectively carrying the baton of rudimentary requisites of public life at a local level let alone marching on the roads of burgeoning and inventions on a national level without tripping.  The BMC under its current political patrons is said to be the richest civic body in the whole of Asia, so the question here is: Where is all this taxpayer money going? Maybe down the drains since they are so clogged? Or maybe being burnt in crowded complexes like Khushboo Mehta? Guess we’ll never find out.

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