Fire, the bane of Delhi slums

In South Delhi, right in front of the posh Vasant Kunj colony and a shopping mall, there used to be a cluster of homes made from bamboo sticks, discarded plastics and rusted tins.

What remains there today are just ashes from a recent past.

A past where there were makeshift tea stalls, women chatting away in the noon about last night’s soap opera, men watching the latest IPL using their prized DTH sets and children worrying about their drawing exam the following day.

A fire in the early hours of April 25, took from them their oasis of solace in their otherwise hectic and unfor-giving schedule in the national Capital.

“I lost my entire savings of  Rs 7,000 kept in a wooden trunk. Nothing much is left, except some clothes, slippers. All our identity proofs are also gone,” says 30-year-old Imran, a resident of the Masoodpur Basti, who works as a labourer in the Capital to meet the needs of his family of five.

As one sees the burnt remnants of 4,000 odd homes which formed the Masoodpur slum, it’s easy to trace the history of a person’s cherished possessions.

Be it the fancy blue comb, the all new Airtel DTH,  the half burnt bed sheet with faces of Fred and Elma Flitstones or the small pink toothbrush for a kid.

 “What I will miss will be the items I got as a part of my dowry. My mother had bought all the things after a careful process of selection and rejection. I had bought a new crockery set just days before. Now there is no money to rebuild the house, let alone buying such items back,” says Radha, who works as a domestic help in some of the nearby apartments.

Her employers have given her some clothes, her only possession right now.

The Masoodpur event is just another thread in the continuing story of major fire outbreaks in Delhi slums, which occur every summer season.

Last year, a similar fire in northwest Delhi’s Bawana area destroyed 400 homes and charred two kids to death, apart from injuring scores of others. 

A year before, a fire in Nawada village in Noida took away the life of two, including a nine-year-old girl. In 2010, more than a  1,000 homes were destroyed in East Delhi’s Ghazipur.

One of the deadliest slum fire took place in 1999, when around 30 people burned to death in North Delhi’s Vijay Ghat slums.

As summers mark their presence, there have been three events of fire outbreaks in Delhi in just the last one month.

“As the slum dwellers don’t have the necessary finances to build regular homes, they use low-cost alternatives like bamboo sticks, thatched roofs, discarded plastic and tin sheets. These materials are highly inflammable, but a big role in furthering any slum fire is played by gas cylinders, which are now a regular feature in such houses”, says Rahbar Qureshi, a researcher working in Hazards centre, an NGO which prepared a study on flammability of materials used in construction of slum homes.

In all such cases, the centre of people’s anger has been the lacklustre attitude of the fire department and the disaster management team.

In almost all the cases of slum fires, residents accuse the fire fighters of arriving really late to be of any help.

While most news reports say that fire tankers on the spot arrived within minutes of the Masoodpur incident, most residents contradict the claim.

“They arrived when everything had been burned, and we had doused the fires ourselves.  When they came, we shooed them away as they were not there when we really needed them. What use is the fire brigade if they arrive after everything has been done?” says one of the residents of erstwhile Masoodpur locality.

A volunteer helping the people to reconstruct their homes,  Harsuchetun says that the Disaster Management team on the spot is equally clueless, “After four days of the incident, they still haven’t shown any interest in housing the people again, let alone make a long term strategy to prevent incidents from occurring again.”

Delhi’s Lt. Governor, Najeeb Jung, visited Masoodpur and assured the people of all facilities to them.  Whether the promise will be met will be seen in the near future.

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