The landslide that Mumbai forgot

Sep 21, 2011, 09:57 IST | Hemal Ashar

SoBo has seen two landslides this year in quick succession. A survivor of a 1985 landslide at Carmichael Hill, rues the fact that this city never learns from the mistakes of the past

SoBo has seen two landslides this year in quick succession. A survivor of a 1985 landslide at Carmichael Hill, rues the fact that this city never learns from the mistakes of the past 

The sun was fighting a losing battle against thunderclouds on June 25, 1985. As the rain came  down in torrents, a portion of the hill near the plush Usha Kiran building on Carmichael Road broke. A cascade of water, mud and boulders rained down on residents at the MP Mills Compound, Tardeo below. The force was tremendous as the debris crashed down several feet and on to tin roofs of rooms  in the chawl below, burying residents in mud and snuffing out lives. Arvind Boricha (47), one of those residents who lost seven members of his family in the tragedy, states that Usha Kiran building's swimming pool had filled with rainwater and the restraining wall broke,  precipitating the landslide. Usha Kiran Society, though, categorically denies that it was the swimming pool that caused the landslide.
(See: Not because of the swimming pool). 

Gone through the roof: Tin roofs collapsed as mud and boulders
rained down on the houses

Making his point: Arvind Boricha says he got the strength to live on
because he wanted to fight for justice pic/ SANTOSH NAGWEKAR

All these years hence: Arvind Boricha near the site of the tragedy,
pointing to Usha Kiran in the background (left) pic/SATYAJIT DESAI

It happened here: Arvind Boricha pointing to the affected area due to
the landslide. Several families have been rehabilitated. pic/SATYAJIT DESAI

The politicians arrive: Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray (in dark glasses) at the site, with survivors of the tragedy. Trikam J Boricha, Arvind's father (in white shirt) is third from right

Boricha recalls his family members were sleeping at home and were buried underneath the debris. At that time, Boricha was then 19 years old and in Bhatia Hospital at Tardeo because he was suffering from typhoid. His father, Trikam Jetha Boricha had come to the hospital to give his son his morning tea, so he was not at home. Boricha lost his mother, brother, both his sisters, (older and younger) and his older sister's three children aged 3 years, 2 years and six months respectively in the tragedy. 

Boricha adds, "There were many who lost their lives. This was a  chawl complex comprising 10 rooms in a row. The rooms had  tin roofs. The roofs could not take the force of the landslide and caved in. My house of 750-800 sq feet was destroyed completely; I lived in Room No 1 at M P Mills Compound. There were others who died too. Boricha says his neighbours, the Makwana family -- a widow Maniben Makwana, who was a retired teacher of a BMC School, and her family members also died. One person survived in the family called Dhiraj Makwana. There was also the Rathod family who suffered. There was the head of the family, Janaben Rathod who died and the landslide also claimed other members of that family. Says Boricha, "Later, I learnt through witnesses who were on site that they saw my younger sister shouting for help amidst the mountain of debris. A Maharashtrian man, Ganesh Vehge jumped into the debris to help her, but he too lost his life, along with her."

According to Boricha at that time, "The BMC had a building on the site, comprising ground plus five floors (of 48 tenements). It was made to re-house the chawl dwellers. Yet, the structure was mired in red tape and controversy. If we had been given possession at that time, maybe this tragedy would have been avoided."
From then on, Boricha claims the shock and stress of the tragedy made him a hypertension sufferer.  He was then a student of the Lala Lajpatrai College in Worli. Boricha says, "My friends ensured that I was not left alone -- they were there for 24 hours a day, and somehow, I survived with my father, Trikam Jetha Boricha who also gave me the courage to live on." Boricha says his father and he could not bear to stay in a BMC building adjoining the chawl. "People who had lost their homes were reinstated permanently over there, but we did not want to live there. That means, every single day we would overlook a spot where we lost our entire family. A reminder that we preferred to forget."

Boricha and his father, Trikam who was in the BMC at that time, were given a room at the 144 Municipal Tenement on Arthur Road, Sane Guruji Marg, from that day. 

Boricha recalls protests taking place at the site, after the tragedy. "We refused to pick up the bodies for days till some action was taken." Familiarly, politicians got involved in the situation, sometimes making political capital of things.  Balasaheb Thackeray visited the site, Murli Deora was also involved in the matter, says Boricha.

Finally, Boricha claimed, Usha Kiran paid a sum of Rs 3- lakh, which went to the Chief Minister's (CM) fund after two years, and the sum was finally distributed to 33 families not just the few that were affected.

Boricha says they are still fighting the case against Usha Kiran in the High Court, (Usha Kiran denies that though saying the case has been settled). Boricha says, "We are seven plaintiffs in the case and we want justice. After all, the Usha Kiran swimming pool was made for their pleasure. It is 27 years, a long time to wait for justice. We want compensation to the tune of Rs 1.5 crore collectively, at 18 per cent interest. We will keep fighting for that."

Boricha adds, "Meanwhile, I have moved on in a way. I now have a wife and two daughters one of who is 22 and the other, 17.  My wife has stood steadfast behind me in this fight and helped me."

Boricha states that the city needs to learn from its past. "Even with landslides resulting in such huge tragedies, development is continuing at a rapid rate, sometimes upsetting the ecological balance." 

Boricha, who quit his job with the BMC and is now a social worker adds, "Today, modern buildings, many of which are skyscrapers have swimming pools as an added facility and attraction for buyers. Yet, I think in some cases, these might add pressure to a structure. Also, even residents have lost their children in drowning accidents in swimming pools in their own buildings. Builders need to do a re-think about this."

With Usha Kiran Society claiming no responsibility for the landslide, it is time to look at the bigger picture, which is rapid and sometimes unplanned development resulting in similar catastrophes. Were there any studies done post the 1985 landslide? Do we need to see how permissions are given? 

While Usha Kiran stoutly denies that it was their swimming pool that was responsible  for the lethal landslide, years later, a swimming pool is once again at the epicenter of a landslide controversy, not very far away in Walkeshwar. Residents of Subhadra mansion in Walkeshwar accuse the landowner of making an illegal swimming pool, which resulted in a landslide earlier this month, damaging their building. The owner though says it was a water harvesting pit. 

As arguments fly back 'n' forth, that hoary, old clich � about history repeating itself rings out loud and clear. 

Not because of the swimming pool
The Usha Kiran building is 25 floors high. It was the first skyscraper in Mumbai and has 50 flats. Says Prakash Patel, secretary of the Usha Kiran building society, "Yes, that landslide had happened and the case was in court but it was settled years ago. We heard somebody was trying to re-instate it but there is nothing on that matter yet. Let me state categorically that it was not the Usha Kiran swimming pool (which was defunct at that time) which precipitated the landslide. A portion of the hill collapsed and because of that the wall broke. 

It was a very small wall. There were several illegal hutments below. The people who were affected were buried under the mud that cascaded down from the hill, it was not the wall which killed them, as it was very small. The Usha Kiran Housing Society had paid a sum of money years ago on humanitarian grounds."

Patel, who referred to himself as a straight shooter reiterated that the case had been closed and added, "In India, people think God owes them a living. We are becoming a spineless country."   

Recent landslides
u On August 29, 2011 a landslide occurred near Tardeo (behind Heera Panna) shopping centre. Mud, boulders and debris rained down on buildings below and the worst affected was Vellard View at Tardeo. At least one person lost his life. Residents from two wings remain away from the building, facing an uncertain future. The building has suffered huge damage.

u Before that, Subhadra Mansion at Walkeshwar suffered a landslide. Residents allege the landowner had constructed an illegal swimming pool while the owner says it was a water-harvesting pit. There was a recent agitation to protest against the inaction following the landslide, with residents saying that nobody had even bothered to clear the debris.

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