Seven years after a fire gutted much of Garib Nagar on the edge of the railway tracks at Mumbai’s Bandra station, a smaller blaze on Thursday afternoon left hundreds of residents stranded in the open once again. The fire began soon after a demolition crew of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation began to evict residents and workers from their homes and workshops.
“In the pressure of the bulldozers, a cylinder must have burst,” said Akram Khan, a textile worker who lost his house in the fire. “That was how the fire spread to the rest of the area.”
The fire was still burning at 11 pm on Thursday.
According to many residents, the municipal corporation gave 48-hour notice for demolition on Wednesday evening, but arrived on Thursday morning at around 11 am with bulldozers and police backup. As residents began to first protest the early arrival and then began to leave with their possessions, a fire broke out somewhere in the middle of the settlement in the afternoon, spreading on both sides to a 300-square-metre area.
The first call to the fire station was at 3.18 p.m and the fire was declared a level four one an hour later. A firefighter and a slum resident were injured in the accident.
While the neighbouring Behrampada in Bandra East is much older, Garib Nagar itself came up on railway land only around 15 years ago. After a devastating fire in 2011 destroyed much of Garib Nagar, city authorities reportedly supported the colony in rebuilding it higher and sturdier, with houses now up to four floors high and made of brick, not tin.
“This is only a small fire compared to 2011,” said Mohammed Arif Qureshi, one of several residents who had decamped to a narrow patch of land between the station and Garib Nagar. Residents used to use that area as an open toilet in the absence of other facilities. In 2011, Qureshi recalled, his entire house had been burnt, but he did not hold out any hope for any support from the municipal authorities this time around.
The newly built structures with their higher floors and narrow lanes were also a fire hazard, urban experts. A report submitted by the municipal corporation to the state government in 2011 said that fires would continue to break out if firefighting infrastructure was not upgraded.
Later in the evening, as the firefighters concentrated on a central block where flames still smouldered in homes at the bottom of the three-storey dwellings there, smaller fires continued to burn at the peripheries. In one area, a group of young men wrestled to direct a high pressure water pipe that firefighters had handed to them towards the flames. Further down the road, residents tried their best to put out smaller fires that remained from the larger blazes.
“I was cooking in my house when the cylinder burst in the back room,” said Sadia Sheikh, whose husband was trying to put out a small fire that had caught in clothes that lay discarded in a corner of their house on the first floor. The front wall of their house abutting the road had fallen in with the flame. Sheikh was able only to bring her four children to safety, but none of her belongings.
Further down the road, as the evening deepened, there were other signs of how this uncertainty has become normal for the thousands of residents of Garib Nagar. Near a bridge leading to the the railway station, a group of men had begun to cook dal and rice in large vessels for community distribution.
Said a resident, “This is normal for us. Calamities keep happening here and now we all know how to respond.”