OVER demolished bricks and tin scrap, Khairunissa Shaikh, 60, treads cautiously on her way to the public toilet, but her naked feet invariably slip. The abrasions, and the rubble that caused them, are reminder of her four-storey tin-and-brick house that once stood amidst the clutter of the Garib Nagar slums.
The widow lost everything to the fire that destroyed 126 tenements in Bandra East slum on October 26 last year, rendering at least 1,000 people homeless. Her fridge, washing machine, furniture and grandson’s school books, amongst Shaikh’s most prized possessions, were lost. With no money, the eight members of her family first lived on the railway tracks for 10 days before setting up a temporary shed on the rubble where their home used to stand.
“The police would drive us away from tracks. Where could we go? Those who had money started living on rent. We lost everything in the fire,” she says. They borrowed thin wooden planks and laid them on rubble, borrowed utensils from nearby buildings and stacked them in a corner, and managed to erect a tarpaulin shed.
BMC data shows that 325 tenements were demolished near the Tansa pipeline in the last week of October. On October 26, on the first day of demolitions, a fire gutted 126 more hutments. Now, only charred iron poles emerge from the rubble.
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Chief fire officer P Rahangdale says there is still no clarity on the cause of the fire while the police investigations found a 22-year-old allegedly responsible for setting a gas cylinder on fire to obstruct the civic body’s demolition drive.
“Every day I rummage through the bricks to find utensil, clothes or anything,” says Noor Jehan Shaikh, who returned to erect a temporary shed on the rubble with the hope that she can lay claim to a portion of the land. Her grand-daughter cries everyday. Her uniform and school books were gutted in the fire.
According to the civic body, 33 families who had documentation proving ownership of their structures were allotted alternative housing in Mahul.
H East Assistant Municipal Commissioner Alka Sasane, however, says that as other families don’t have paperwork, their rehabilitation is disputed. “We will build a wall around that area. After barricading, those families who have temporarily erected sheds will be forced to move out as well.” The BMC’s proposed cycle track along the Tansa pipeline will also snake through this stretch eventually.
“My house was right next to the spot where fire started,” Ibrahim Shaikh (37), a paanwala, says. His three shops along the pipeline were demolished by the BMC. Hours later, fire engulfed his three-storey house that shared a railing with Bandra station’s FOB. “My family has lived here for generations. This is not the first time someone deliberately set the slum on fire,” he says.
Underneath the bridge, a rectangular plastic sheet forms his new dwelling. There are 13 members in his family including his six-month-old daughter and 65-year-old mother. Cardboard and thin wooden planks form the base of their dwelling.
The family sleeps, huddled together. “We hope one day we’ll get our space back to build a new hutment,” says mother Ruksana Shaikh. Ibrahim now uses a cane basket to sell cigarette packets and paan. Mohsin Mohammed, an auto driver, shifted to Nallasopara after the fire destroyed his 8×10 sqft tenement. “I pay Rs 5,000 rent there,” he says. Every day, he comes to Bandra to drive an auto.
“We have filed a complaint with state human rights commission. The hearings will begin soon,” says Bilal Khan, who petitioned the Bombay High Court on behalf of the slum-dwellers. According to him, the BMC served a notice of 48 hours but began demolition within 16 hours of serving notice. “Even those who have documents have not been resettled,” he claims.