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Urban tinder-box

By Anoo Bhuyan

On December 19, 90 homes were destroyed in a fire in Delhi’s Dasratpuri-Naseerpur slum. The paper and plastic these waste-pickers collect are a fire hazard in many slums, but the state refuses to give them a separate sorting space

Delhi, Dasratpuri-Naseerpur slum

“I was putting the children to bed. Suddenly we saw that a fire had broken out in our basti. We had maybe five minutes to gather the children and run to the gate,” says Anita, recounting her experience of the fire that broke out in her slum last week.

It was the evening of December 19, 2012, and the kabadiwallas of Dasratpuri-Naseerpur slum in south-west Delhi had just returned from a day’s work. They were relaxing while dinner was being cooked when suddenly, at around 9.30 pm, they noticed a fire that was consuming their settlement. The basti was a veritable ‘pyro-paradise’, filled with cardboard cartons and other recyclable material that the men had collected over the days from waste piles around the city. No lives were lost, but around 90 families saw their homes destroyed.

Waste-collection, its subsequent sorting and cleaning and finally, the sale of the scrap is the main livelihood in this settlement. Cartons, paper, plastic, tin and other substances caught fire almost immediately as the flames licked it all up. Many people also lost the rickshaws in which they ferry the waste they collect. “I only have what I’m wearing on my back right now,” says Ram Babu, 30. Others estimate that they lost anything between Rs 15-30 lakh, in terms of the scrap they were going to sell.

Many of the residents said they were migrants who had come from states like Bihar in search of a livelihood. They have shifted from slum to slum several times, as each home was demolished. At present, they sleep in a nearby public park, and a marriage hall some distance away which the local councillor has made available to them. “We can’t find another place to live. It’s very cold now, but we have to sleep outdoors,” says Ram Babu. 

Residents from the surrounding township as well as NGOs have started sending the workers food and clothes. But there are others who claim “there is a badboo (bad smell) coming from the area” and want them removed. One owner of a nearby apartment voices his irritation: “They play a lot of loud music and don’t allow us to sleep. The area is dirty and there are flies. They burn things like tyres to stay warm, but the smell bothers us.” The fire apparently cracked the windows of this second-floor house, and the tree outside the balcony was singed. The owner says: “We are worried about the fire hazard since every house in this apartment has a gas cylinder and could burst in a situation like this.”

The Kachra Kamgar Union (KKU) that has been working with waste-collectors was quick to respond to the fire. The union has been pushing for waste-collectors to be given benefits by the state in terms of a separate sorting space for the scrap that they gather. A sorting space would bring many benefits to the workers. They will no longer have to live alongside the scrap they collect; their settlements would be less of an ‘eyesore’ to the towns and cities that bustle around them; and, they will be less prone to disasters like fires which destroy all their hard work, their meagre possessions and their savings. “Pune has successfully implemented a separate sorting space, and has begun distributing identity cards. Bangalore is currently working on its waste management system as well. Delhi needs to take this issue more seriously and start paying attention to the needs of waste-pickers,” says Anjor Bhaskar who works with KKU.

Fires spread rapidly in slums like this one because the houses are made from tarpaulin, cloth and scraps of wood, and are squeezed together in congested areas. Anjor says: “One matchstick could bring the whole place down.”

It is estimated that nearly half of Delhi’s population of 15 million live in slums. Ironically, the waste-collectors who are part of the union had been planning an agitation directed at the local municipal corporation, for December 20, to ask for sorting space. Before this could happen, the fire robbed them of everything.

Anjor spells out another important irony: “The city produces massive amounts of waste and the government knows how essential these waste-pickers are to society. Yet the government is not providing any legal space for them to be recognised and given benefits.”

Fires break out in Delhi’s slums with alarming regularity. What is surprising about the one at Dasratpuri-Naseerpur is that three days after the fire, when I visited the area, there had not been a single media report on the event. The election of Narendra Modi and the gangrape of a young girl in the capital were what hogged the headlines. In the last 12 months, the media has reported around five fires that destroyed slums in various parts of the city (January 8, January 31, February 1, May 21, and June 22). How many have gone unnoticed?

(Anoo Bhuyan is a freelance journalist, mostly based out of Bangalore)

Infochange News & Features, December 2012