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Lindsay Pereira: In case of an emergency...

If a fire breaks out in your locality, the history of our city will teach you to abandon all hope

The building I live in has a fire extinguisher on every second floor. It’s a rather small one, around a foot tall, with which, I imagine, I may be able to fight a fire that’s approximately three feet in height. The building is seven storeys tall, so I suspect around 100 times the current number of extinguishers may be required in the event of a serious fire breaking out.

No Cafe Mondegar because Bombay, supposedly India’s financial capital, couldn’t deal with a fire in 2016. Pic/Shadab Khan
No Cafe Mondegar because Bombay, supposedly India’s financial capital, couldn’t deal with a fire in 2016. Pic/Shadab Khan

The possibility of a serious fire breaking out is not very farfetched either, because the people who live near my building insist on lighting two large fires within 50 feet of each other during the festival of Holi every year, with both fires boasting flames that reach the fifth floor. One fire lit up a coconut tree two years ago, but was put out before it could touch the building alongside. It didn’t stop my neighbours from continuing with the tradition though. After all, what are health concerns, environmental damage and the safety and security of human beings when there are rituals to uphold?

I thought about my foot-tall fire extinguishers while reading about the fire in Colaba a week ago. Apparently, it took more than 94 lakh litres of water from the BMC’s supply to extinguish it, which promptly led to a shortage of water to four zones in that ward later. This would seem like a piece of absurdist theatre, if it weren’t so sadly true. The fire went on for hours, apparently, with water to the hydrants cut off for a half hour on account of an earlier shortage. Some hydrants weren’t accessible either because, as is the case across much of the city, they had been smothered by concrete.

These smothered hydrants pop up at all kinds of nooks and corners if you go looking, a testament to the incompetence, inefficiency, callousness and sheer stupidity of the people we have entrusted our city’s functioning to.

A casual walk through Colaba Causeway will make obvious even to the most dim-witted among us — a BMC corporator, for instance — that missing hydrants aren’t the only problem here. The hawkers are a menace, and not simply because they accost tourists with fake goods. Vehicles trying to reach the fire simply couldn’t get to it as quickly as they would have liked to, on account of streets being blocked by people who have never been legally allowed to be there in the first place. It’s what makes the stretch outside every single railway station in our city a potential fire hazard, because the BMC can’t be bothered to move the hawkers. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why they won’t do it either.

Residents of Colaba have now compared their locality to Mathura, pointing out that evicting encroachers from an area is what led to recent clashes in that city. They say they have been struggling to evict the hawkers for decades, without success. What the residents of Metro Building now have to deal with is a notice asking them to conduct a structural audit, on the basis of which the building may be repaired or demolished. Imagine that: no Cafe Mondegar because Bombay, supposedly India’s financial capital, couldn’t deal with a fire in 2016.

This isn’t about just a fire either. It’s a rant about how our government takes so much for granted when it comes to safety. When was the last time someone from the fire department visited your locality to figure out whether or not its vehicles could reach buildings in the neighbourhood in the event of an emergency? When were the hydrants on your street last checked, or even located? When was the last time you spotted a fire brigade stuck impotently in traffic, waiting for space to manoeuvre while something, somewhere, continued to burn? When was the last time you thought about what a water shortage in your building could mean in the event of a fire? Are you aware of the fact that it took the fire department around three years to import a 90-metre snorkel to combat high-rise fires in 2015? Chew on that for a while, will you?

Colaba isn’t that far from Mantralaya, supposedly the seat of all power in the state of Maharashtra. What if a fire were to break out in Mantralaya that couldn’t be controlled on account of poor fire-fighting equipment, water shortages or flouted safety norms? Oh, wait. That did happen in 2013, didn’t it? And yet, the people supposedly governing our city never seem to learn.

When he isn’t ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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