After a level four fire ravaged a huge area of Behrampada slum in Bandra, Mumbai, on Thursday, 26 October, nearly 400 slums were razed to ashes, leaving thousands homeless. Fortunately, there were no fatalities, which, if you’ve ever been to Behrampada, is a rather curious fact.
Behrampada is Mumbai’s ‘no-go’ zone, in stark contrast to Bandra West, its rich cousin. Poor, mostly Muslim slum-dwellers, who work in home-based garment factories and tanneries, have made it their home. Hundreds of one-room accommodations are stacked together next to Bandra’s railway line.
How then, did the fire, which spread over a 20,000 square metre area and lasted three hours, leave only three injured, especially when the people were caught unawares?
Turns out, the story on the ground is completely different from that of the official version.
What/Who Came First, the Fire or the Police?
According to the official version of events, a fire broke when a cylinder burst open at around 3:15 pm on 26 October in the slums adjacent to the railway tracks. By 4:20 pm, it grew to a level four fire. Later, two more cylinders exploded.
Seven jets, nine fire engines, and 10 water tankers got caught in traffic, but eventually reached the location and fought off the blaze until late in the night. A part of the adjacent railway bridge and the ticketing office were also charred.
Three persons, including two firemen, suffered minor injuries. Fortunately, there were no casualties.
Qureshi Mehzabi, a mother of two, saw her house being burnt down. All she could do was get her children to safety and somehow salvage a refrigerator.
The police will tell you the fire started late in the afternoon, people were evacuated and fire trucks doused the fire. But in reality, the police had arrived the night before, on Wednesday, 25 October, and handed us 48-hour eviction notices as part of the BMC’s slum demolition drive. However, they came the next morning, less than 15 hours later, and started bulldozing our homes. If they come and start breaking down everything without letting us remove anything, or even turn off the lights, of course something will explode or give way. The fire started because of them and the whole thing started at around 11 am.Qureshi Mehzabi, Survivor
The Quint gained access to eyewitness videos recorded by one Imran Ansari, a resident of the slum, which clearly shows that the demolition drive started early in the morning, and another even more incriminating video where it is clear that the demolition went on even after the fire started. The police only supervised the bulldozers and looked on.
The Quint spoke to nine eyewitnesses who concurred that the police called the fire brigade more than an hour later, which then arrived at around 4:30 pm, three hours after the fire had started.
Mehzabi also alleged – as did several other survivors – that when women and children tried to rush to their homes to save whatever they could, the police lathi-charged them.
All she wants now is a “house for a house” from the authorities.
Mohd Kaif, a survivor, wanted to know how the police could just arrive the very next day to break down the houses after giving notices until 9 pm the previous night. “I got injured as well,” he said, showing the dark blueish-black bruise left by a piece of flying metal when the cylinder burst.
He made some other serious allegations, reiterated by other eye-witnesses. He said not three but at least six cylinders exploded. The first one exploded between 1 pm and 2 pm, and not after 3 pm, as authorities have claimed.
The police did not call the fire brigade and continued the demolition for another hour, before realising that the fire was growing in intensity, Kaif said.
The BMC came with the police in the morning and began demolishing our homes. We asked for time to evacuate but they said they wouldn’t give us any. I don’t know what they did with their bulldozers, but a fire started in the slums. Even after the fire started spreading, the police continued their demolition.Mohammad Arib, resident of Garib Nagar
Arib added: “We told them, ‘call the fire brigade, call the fire brigade,’ but they said they had only come here to demolish the slums and did not care about the fire. They kept bulldozing more and more houses. Only when the fire increased a lot, they called the fire brigade to douse the flames.”
Thousands Left Homeless, Property Worth Crores Reduced to Ashes
The remnants of the Behrampada slum look like a black, ghastly, shiny structure against Mumbai’s sweltering sun. Heaps of raw cloth material from the garment factories, blackened furniture sheets, poles sticking out at odd angles, tar and ash as far as the eye can see… the shredded photographs, the odd shoe, melted utensils, and pictures of deities and loved ones were witness to the destruction caused by the fire.
In the cramped city of Mumbai, it’s not very hard to believe how reckless bulldozing of hundreds of homes sparked a fire that led to three cylinders exploding. And for those (on Twitter) who claim that “anti-social Muslim elements” deliberately sparked the fire, stepping onto the railway bridge overlooking the tracks will tell them the magnitude of the tragedy, and the plight of the survivors.
More than 1,500 people can be seen sitting homeless by the railway tracks, in makeshift tents or nothing at all, with their burnt rags and damaged furniture.
People were pulling out charred generators and sewing machines, sofa sets they could perhaps salvage, and tying to save melted gold and silver jewellery in humble wooden chests.
An eyewitness, who lives across the road, said that because of the demolition and fire, those who had property documents to prove they weren’t staying illegally, are now without any proof. And even those homes that were not given notices were gutted in the fire.
Each house has around 10 lakh worth of belongings. Each floor had four to five living areas. Can you imagine the damage we are facing? My family could not save anything. I was out for work. My mother-in-law was there with my children. The police came and lathi-charged them and demolished the house, which was also later burnt. I spent the night with my family on the road divider.Noor, resident of Gareeb Nagar
Mohammad Arim, another survivor, estimated that at least 400 houses were gutted in the fire. More than that, he stressed, people also lost entire factories with valuable machines and raw material worth lakhs of rupees, and, in essence, burnt down their source of livelihood as well.
Iqbal Khan, 85, sat hunched over the burnt remains of his machines from his garment factory nearby. “Each of these machines costs at least Rs 8 lakh,” he said, going so far as to allege that the police deliberately started the fire to evacuate people and burn down the slums at one go.
“It was absolutely still and quiet there. No one was cooking any food, no cylinder was being used. How will a spark start, you tell me? The fire was started by the police.”
He is angry and rightfully so.
Next to him stood Mohammad Yunus. “Ye acche din aa gaye, dekho (the good days have come, see),” he said, explaining how his family is now on the road, having survived the previous night without food or water, hoping the last belongings they have with them don’t get stolen by the equally desperate.
“The H-ward Corporator who came to give us the notice hasn’t even come today and the Collector has been running away from us ever since the fire. No one has even spoken to us about what we can do now, what we should do, or how they can help us,” he said.
On being told that there were no casualties in the fire in the crowded Behrampada slum, he said, “We were all thrown out of our homes on to the roads hours earlier by the police. There was no one inside anyway.”