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Fighting urban fires

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

Fighting urban fires

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 illustrate this, look at the fire that erupted in the slum colony of Behrampada next to the Bandra East railway station in Mumbai. It broke out in the early hours of June 18, 2009, in the tightly packed settlement that came into the limelight during the 1992-93 communal riots. Eighteen people died, hundreds were injured and displaced. In the middle of the monsoon, the only shelter the displaced families could find was under the skywalk built to assist pedestrians walking from Bandra station to the adjoining Bandra-Kurla Complex business district. 

No one is able to ascertain how the fire started. Everyone had a theory. Many believed it was sabotage. They feared that builders, with their eyes on this lucrative piece of land (given its location), were trying to drive the slum-dwellers out. The suspicion was not entirely misplaced as builders have often used slum fires to clear encumbered plots. 

On the other hand, the reason for the fire could have been simpler and less sinister. Apart from kerosene and LPG cylinders that exist in every home in this tightly packed slum settlement, many homes are also workshops during the day. Here, all manner of goods are produced, from textiles to furniture.  Inflammable chemicals are stored even in areas where people sleep at night.  All that’s needed to start a fire is one small spark, or an electrical short-circuit -- not difficult to imagine when you see the exposed wiring. And before you even recognise the serious nature of the fire, it can spread. Once it spreads, there is no stopping it. There is little space to manoeuvre between structures that have been raised to four storeys without an adequate foundation, leaving a gap of barely three feet for a pathway between them. How does one fight a fire in such a place? 

The simple answer is: you cannot. Fire brigades in most cities are simply not trained or equipped to deal with such a contingency. While expensive equipment is now being procured to deal with the increasing height of urban structures, there is little training or planning to cope with densely packed slums. As the fire brigade officer explained to irate residents of Behrampada during a public hearing, even though the nearest fire station responded and sent a fire engine to check the extent of the fire, by the time it got reinforcements the fire had spread to the centre of the slum. The fire hoses could not reach those areas, and residents surrounded the fire engine. The additional engines and water tanks ran out of water as there was no fire hydrant in the vicinity. 

The absence of fire hydrants tells another tale of the lack of preparedness of the city to deal with fires. In Mumbai, out of 10,371 fire hydrants, only 1,503 work. This information became public when a citizen, N Lakhani, filed a question under the Right to Information Act. Fire hydrants are supposed to supply water through the day and night so that, in the event of a fire, the fire brigade does not have to go far to get water. Fire hydrants are supposed to be placed 150 metres apart. In fact, they are 500 metres apart. As a result, in the event of a fire, you would be lucky if you got the fire brigade to come on time, and, even if they did, for them to have enough water to put out the fire. 

A fire engine usually carries around 4,000 litres of water and, in addition, water tankers have a capacity of up to 14,000 litres. But if the tankers and engines have to travel some distance to find a source of water where they can refill, how will rapidly spreading fires, such as the one in Behrampada, be put out in time? 

The problem here is not the efficiency of the fire brigade, it is the infrastructure it needs to be efficient and the training it requires to deal with the majority of fires that always seem to occur in slum areas. 

Fortunately, in the case of Behrampada, the loss of life was limited to 18. It could have been much greater. But the loss of property was huge. The fire made a hole in the middle of the slum that appeared as if a bomb had been dropped on it. All the structures there were reduced to cinders. And around them stood buildings, illegally constructed and raised to four storeys with no foundation, single-brick walls, iron girders on the four corners and wooden boards for floors. Such structures require just a nudge to bring them tumbling down. Another set of disasters waiting to happen. 

In sum, the Behrampada fire exemplifies the perennial disasters facing urban poor settlements. Their uncertain status means that no steps are taken by the authorities to ensure that they live in a safe environment. Violations of building norms, such as unsafe structures in the slum settlement, are simply ignored if the right officials are paid. No effort is made to ensure that there are water sources within easy reach, if there should be a fire. People are not given any training in disaster management. As a result, panic amongst them actually hampers efforts. 

And, finally, the disastrous consequences are compounded by the absence of a plan to provide adequate temporary shelter for the displaced. In Behrampada, the community organised its own shelters under the skywalk. A month after the fire, families were still living there suffering insects, snakes, and other reptiles that emerge from the open drains behind the settlement during the monsoon. Old people and young children were ill. It was a pathetic sight. 

Even if such man-made disasters cannot be avoided altogether, the least that can be done is to prepare for them -- train people and rescuers so that loss of life and property is minimal. 

Infochange News & Features, October 2009