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Life comes cheap for India’s richest corporation

Life comes cheap for India’s richest corporation

Ten persons lost their lives in Mumbai over 13 days earlier this month. What took their lives was the criminal negligence that has become the default method of functioning for Mumbai’s municipal corporation.
Last Updated 03 April 2024, 06:41 IST

Ten persons lost their lives in Mumbai over 13 days earlier this month. Two were children, brothers aged 4 and 5. The rest were adult workers, aged between 18 and 45. The deaths of all of them could have been prevented. What took their lives was the criminal negligence that has become the default method of functioning for Mumbai’s municipal corporation, the richest in India, and, indeed, in all of Asia.

Consider the immediate cause of these deaths. The children, who were playing in a municipal garden near their home, fell into a water tank covered only by a plastic sheet; its lid had been stolen. Their bodies weren’t found till the next day as the garden didn’t see many visitors. Residents had stopped going there after having complained in vain to the local municipal officials about the garden’s condition. All that the officials would tell them was that they had ‘budget constraints’.

Rs 60,000 crore was the BMC’s budget for 2023-2024. Its FDs are Rs 83,000 crore. But its ward office cited ‘budget constraints’ to replace a water tank cover!

How come these two kids went to this deserted, dilapidated garden? Because for them, the garden was indeed what it was meant to be: an open space where they could play. Like for others in their nomadic community of Waghris, who go around the city selling utensils for old clothes, home for these children was a pavement dwelling.

Was the BMC struck by remorse for having devastated a family? Of course not, it simply shifted its responsibility to the man it had appointed for the garden’s maintenance.

The BMC’s policy destroyed another family whose two sons, aged 18 and 20, and their father, aged 45, suffocated to death in the tank they were trying to clean. The BMC has decided its civic duty to slum-dwellers ends at building toilets for them. Maintenance of these is handed over to someone else, who is allowed to collect usage fees from slum-dwellers to pay for maintenance, including water and power charges at commercial rates.

It turned out that the father, who had been sub-contracted to look after the toilet to which this tank was attached, had called the BMC to clean it, but found he couldn’t afford its rates. So, he sent his son, who’d just given his Class XII Board exams, into the tank. Incidentally, ward officials had been informed in September about the precarious condition of this toilet.

The other deaths that occurred on the BMC’s watch were of five workers. In three separate incidents, one worker died while laying a stormwater drain; the rest fell to their death while constructing high rises. The BMC did its duty — it sent out its SOP on construction workers to the contractors involved.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, many of the migrants who left Mumbai in droves, clutching their meagre belongings and savings, swore they wouldn’t come back. The message sent then to those who make this city run with their sweat and blood was that Mumbai won’t nurture you during a crisis. The message being sent now to the same lot of people is that Mumbai is a death trap for the likes of you. But can they afford to stay away?

Thanks to activists, the BMC will have to provide some explanation for three of these deaths. The National Commission for Scheduled Castes has started an inquiry into the deaths of the two brothers and their father. The BMC, which is frantically trying to find out whether this was a septic tank or a water tank, may have to compensate the family. But what’s a few lakhs to a corporation that recently lent Rs 1,000 crore to another agency for Metro projects?

Even this meagre amount won’t be given without a fight. The country’s richest corporation fought all the way to the Supreme Court to challenge an industrial court order directing it to make its contractual sanitation workers permanent. Just last month, the municipal commissioner was summoned by the Supreme Court to explain why, seven years later, that order had not been implemented.

The BMC’s officials have often been told off by courts in words which any public servant would find humiliating. But nothing seems to shame them: neither judicial strictures, nor adverse media coverage. With BMC elections not having been held for over two years, officials are even less accountable.

At any rate, no political party has lost any sleep over these 10 deaths. Busy in negotiating pre-poll alliances, no party wants to fight for the rights of those sections it considers mere vote-banks. Finally, it will be left to trade unionists, labour lawyers, and the media to ensure justice.

(Jyoti Punwani is a senior journalist.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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