Dousing the infernos of urban chaos

Topics plastic waste

A recent text message received from Defence Minister Rajnath Singh exhorts “Hon Raksha Mantri to flag off ‘Plastic Se Raksha’. Nationwide event from Delhi Cantt Board”. This was on December 7. 

A day later, in the early hours of Sunday, December 8, an appalling fire broke out in a deeply congested area of Old Delhi, killing 43, mostly poor migrants from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Jharkhand, several of them children, engaged in producing plastic toys, plastic photo frames, rexine bags, and suchlike. The sweat shops were packed with inflammable materials such as glue and plastic granules. The workers lived and worked in airless tenements, two and three storeys high; fire tenders lost much time in reaching the spot because the narrow lane was dense with vending carts. “There was no ventilation and the staircase was blocked with highly combustible material,” said an investigator. 

With rampant illegal construction and no safety or fire regulation, disasters such as this occur with growing frequency across urban India. Earlier in the year 17 died from asphyxiation and burns in a Karol Bagh high-rise hotel. The police report noted “that extensive use of plastic, other inflammable material on the walls and partitions and a temporary structure erected on the roof” led to the rapid spread of smoke and fire. 

The defence minister is only parroting the prime minister’s pledges and appeals to make India a plastic-free nation by 2022. But the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) begs to differ. Delhi, where the leading worthies of government reside, according to the CPCB’s figures, is the single-biggest contributor of plastic waste (of the 26,000 tonnes annually generated nationwide), followed by Kolkata and Ahmedabad. 

Despite window dressing such as banning single-use plastic in Parliament and railways, the chasm between policy pronouncements and ground-level action is ever-widening. For instance, the Waste Management Rules of 2016 have consistently been diluted due to pressure from plastic manufacturers, labour contractors, and the thousands of migrants employed in the sweatshops crammed into ghettoes such as the one where the blaze this month took a deadly toll.

Among other clauses, mandatory fines on shopkeepers using plastic bags have been dropped. On the contrary, the Centre for Science and Environment reports a 136 per cent increase in the number of grossly polluting industries between 2011 and 2018. Despite crores spent on cleaning the Ganga and Yamuna, carriers of plastic waste, the river in Delhi is officially dead — the CPCB claims its waters for 20 km through Delhi are actually “sewage from the Najafgarh drain”. As for Mother Ganga, it has acquired the unflattering reputation of a curiosity and charity pit stop for visiting royalty. The King and Queen of Sweden on their recent visit attended the inauguration of a sewage treatment plant at Haridwar even as the Jal Shakti minister delivered a sermon on the river as saviour of millions.

The aftermath of the rising casualties in the charred building witnessed ugly scenes of quarrelling among authorities — the fire service, the municipality, and police, all blaming one another. The bickering became political, with the ruling Aam Aadmi Party and the BJP-controlled municipal corporation at each other’s throats.

Hundreds of thousands of buildings are declared dangerous and unsafe after such disasters throughout the country, and the tinderbox of Delhi is no different. The capital’s municipalities announced the immediate sealing of 4,272 out of 5,236 units, with one political boss piously announcing that he “sought answers” as to how such illegal construction was allowed.

He should know. Corrupt officials and the police, together with local political henchmen, are complicit in the creation of potential infernos — one estimate reckons that 70 per cent of the city’s population live in unauthorised colonies, in unregulated buildings so congested that access by fire engines is difficult. The city’s fire chief went on record to say: “We have witnessed over 20,000 fire incidents in Delhi since January this year and 194 people lost their lives. We have no hesitation in admitting that there is a 50 per cent shortage of firefighters, keeping in view the area and population of the city.” Yet it is also a matter of record that in all the major fires since 2011, not a single government official or policeman has been indicted in any inquiry for negligence in building or fire safety lapses.

Leaders have come to treat the fires of urban chaos as par for the course. With customary hand-wringing condolence messages and cash compensations, the chief minister and prime minister proffered cheques of Rs 10 lakh and Rs 2 lakh, respectively, to each of the families of the bereaved. 

As for the terrified survivors of the burnt-out building, who ate, slept, and worked in sub-human conditions, they hurriedly packed up the remains of their plastic-producing raw materials and moved on — to set up shop in new deathtraps elsewhere in the city.

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