Phorum Dalal meets victims and survivors who are running from pillar to post to reclaim their homes
It was a Saturday,” recalls 26-year-old Aashna Qureshi, erstwhile resident of Banoo 5, once a multi-storied building in Mumbra. The nondescript structure shot to limelight when it came crashing down like a pack of cards on September 21. “The following Wednesday, we had a wedding in the family. ‘Shaadi ka ghar tha, my brother-in-law was tying the knot,” recalls Aashna, as she pushes a bundle of clothes behind the bed and tidies the 300 square feet room in Mustafa Chawl where 11 members of the Qureshi family are presently residing.
The crash took the life of Tousif, another brother-in-law, and for three days, Aashna, along with two other family members stood guard at the site and collected any belongings they could lay their hands on.
“We had three cupboards full of shopping bags, full of clothes and even valuables we had brought from our mother’s house,” 20-year-old Zarine, Aashna’s sister-in-law, interrupts from one corner of the house, the horror of the crash and what it did to them, clearly visible in her young eyes.
On the day of the incident, the women had woken up at 7 am, to fill water in the vessels. “Suddenly, our neighbours came rushing, asking us to leave everything and run down, as a room in their house had caved in,” says Aashna.
“The moment I stepped out of the building and turned to look at the structure, it collapsed. In that one second, we lost everything,” says Zarine, with a tremble in her voice. The Qureshi family, many of whom work as butchers, is presently staying in a room that belongs to a distant relative. “When we came here, we didn’t have any vessels, or clothes. Everything is borrowed,” says Aashna.
Rent is higher than my wage
Later that same afternoon, we meet 36-year-old Aslam Ansari at the spot where the building once stood. “We were 10 of us, living in a 550 square feet flat. On September 15, we were told that the columns of our building were shaky,” recalls Ansari, who works in an aluminum factory.
But not everyone who lost their home in the crash here, have lost hope. Not yet. Last week, Ansari attended a meeting with other residents where they decided to hire a lawyer and sue the builder. “It is our land, and we want permission to rebuild our homes through cluster development. The BMC gave us a room in Vartak Nagar, Thane but it was so small that we refused it,” he says.
Another problem Ansari is facing is procuring a gas cylinder. “The officials ask us for documents, in spite of our names being registered. We lost all our papers, how do I submit them? The only relief that has come is from the Jamiat Ulama-e-Maharashtra that distributed R10,000 to every flat owner. “I have to pay a rent of R8,000 now, when my monthly income is R7,000. And I cannot go to work till I sort out issues here. My life is on hold, and nothing else matters,” says Ansari.
One emotion that rings common between victims of building collapses across the city is that of helplessness and confusion, with help taking more than the promised time to arrive.
Hope in the times of despair
While some families do escape with only emotional injuries and are fighting to build a new roof, many are grieving the lives lost in these crashes. On September 27, when Babu Genu market building collapsed in Dockyard Road, 30-year-old Tushar Pawar, who works in a private healthcare company, lost his entire family, including his parents, two sisters and grandmother. “I have not got any compensation or accommodation so far. The BMC says the process is on. I am running from pillar to post as they keep asking me to submit documents and fill forms. They have also promised me a job but nothing has happened so far,” says Tushar, who is now living with his aunt. “Kya bolu main aapko, sab kuch khatam ho gaya hai. (What do I tell you, everything is over). On the day of the collapse, I left for work and the moment I reached office, I got a call informing me that my house had collapsed. At first, I could not understand what it meant. When I reached the site, they told me my family had been wiped out.
“I want justice. We have been receiving corporation from from the local corporator as well as the Municipal Mazdoor Union, but the BMC’s administration needs to corporate. I want them to give me a job and shelter. All those responsible for the crash should be punished. Till then, I won’t rest,” says Pawar.
Not a shirt in my bag...
For many in Mumbai, losing a home does not always mean a crash. The residents of seven buildings in Campa Cola compound in Worli for instance, are living each day, knowing that the home they bought with their life’s savings, will be demolished soon. The Bombay High Court had on September 26 dismissed a writ petition by the residents seeking regularisation of 35 illegal floors across all the buildings, and now the Supreme Court has given them time till November 11 to move out.
But what about people like 90-year-old Asha Andayal? It takes her 10 minutes to walk out of her bedroom to the living room on the eight floor of Midtown building. She insists that she will meet us. “Are you trying to drive me out of my house,” the 90-year-old lashes out, only to flash a hopeful smile when we tell her we are here to listen. “Our house is 25 years old. Supreme court bola ke chale jao, toh jana padega. Par kahan? (the court says, so we have to go. But where?)” she asks. Though Andayal doesn’t know the details of the case and loses sense of time and space, she knows something is wrong. “I want to die in this very house. That will make me happy,” she says.
From pillar to post
A few minutes later we meet 24-year-old financial broker Ankit Shah, who lives on the seventh floor of Patel building. Shah is actively involved in the campaign to save the houses. “Our flats have been tagged unauthorised because the builder built more floors than he had permission for. We are being thrown out, through no fault of ours. The Supreme Court has extended the deadline to vacate the flats in Campa Cola by another month, ending November 11,” he says.
Fight we must
“I am at an age when I should be focusing on my career. But, I have taken leave to fight for our buildings,” says Shah, who is in charge of handling events, the press, talking to people and going to lawyers.
In this uncertain atmosphere, Shah has a new routine. His day begins at 7 am, as he heads to the residents’ meeting at 8.30 am. We are anticipating what will happen next, searching for solutions, making a list of people we can approach for help. In the past four months, I have not sat with my family or had a relaxed conversation with them. My day ends past midnight,” says Shah, who lives with his parents, twin sister and elder brother.
“There is a lot of tension. So many families have moved out and many have even returned to their native place as they cannot afford to rent a flat anywhere in Mumbai,” says Shah.
The wounds are raw and the emotions are running high. The powers-that-be, ministers, babus and civic authorities, do precious little to help the victims and more often than not work hand-in-glove with builders responsible for the mess. Is anyone listening?
‘All my bags are packed’
On September 30 this year, 46-year-old Sunita Sancheti, along with her husband Suresh, cleaned out their cupboards and storage shelves and packed all their belongings, including the air-conditioners and television set. She transferred the cartons to her uncle’s garage the next day. “With the BMC threatening to raze our floor, I emptied the entire house," she says, pointing to the hanging wires, open sockets and empty walls inside her apartment in Midtown building in the Campa Cola Society. “All we have are two chairs, a divan and beds to sleep on. This is the most unimaginable thing that has happened in my life. After 23 years of living in this house, the BMC says that we can’t live here any more. Today, we have nothing. We are worrying even in our sleep. We checked a few flats in the area to rent, but they are so expensive,” says Sancheti, who now stocks food and groceries for only two days at a time. “I will stay here till they push me out,” she says, adding that she is worried for her husband, a heart patient. “After 30 years of working in Mumbai, it breaks his heart that we could not even buy a decent house. But we will fight till the very end,” concludes Sancheti.