Part 1. When the levee breaks.
12th of April 2013. For the residents of G-Block in Bawana, a resettlement colony on the outskirts of Delhi, that bright summer day was progressing as usual, till about noon.
Most of the men, who were daily labourers at factories nearby, were already off to work. Those who stayed back were at the mosque nearby, offering their Friday prayers (Namaz). Women were cooking lunch and children had just returned from a primary school nearby.
North India was under the grip of a heat wave. The makeshift shelters that they were living in,usually made from dry straw and plastic sheets, were offering little solace in the sweltering summer heat. At about 1:30 pm, in one of those straw huts, all stacked one next to the other, a fire broke out. That’s what the locals claim till date. Somebody must have been cooking way too close to the straw fences or it could have been the steady hot wind that was blowing throughout the day; nobody knows the source of the fire yet. Nonetheless, before anyone could even comprehend what was going on, in less than 10 minutes, a massive fire engulfed the area and was seen fast spreading towards a powerhouse nearby. The summer heat and wind played catalyst to those fiery flames that gutted close to 570 huts and also took 3 lives along with it; of a woman and two children. Over a hundred received burn injuries – again, most of them women and children. This image by Manan Vatsayana of AFP***, captures the loss and despair in its entirety.
Bawana is a good two and a half hours travel by road from South Delhi. By evening a full barrage of media and officials landed at the site. The First Information Report (FIR) filed at a nearby police booth at about 8:30 PM that night, had the following details about one of the deceased.
…J.J Colony Bawana Delhi, MLC No. 1326/13 – Unknown – Age 4 years – …..body charred due to burn and patient declared brought dead….
Locals told me that they have tracked down this young boy. They claim he is Little Manish, three-years old son of Rampal, a daily wage labourer.
Mohammed Ansar, a young man in his early twenties, was praying at the mosque when he and his friends saw thick bellows of smoke up in the air. They came rushing to the area. He picked up a few children and jumped over a 5 feet boundary wall.
“I was trying to help women and children climb that wall. The men could easily cross it but not those women and kids”
He tells me pointing at the sidewalls of the area.
Unfortunately, Manish and Sartaj (the other child who lost his life) couldn’t find any help that day. Maybe they were alone at home. Ansar tells me that when they finally found Manish, his body was charred beyond recognition and he was found underneath a table.
More than a month later, on the 22nd of May, when I was visiting the area, the FIR still carried the details of the deceased as an unknown 4 year old. This could have implications for Rampal and his family. The state government has announced a compensation of Rs.100,000 to the family of the deceased. Imagine the agony of those parents, who have to now run from door to door to ‘prove’ that the unknown in the police report is actually their three year old son.
When I met Kalavati (in the pic below), Manish’s grandmother, she was shattered beyond words. Manish was the youngest in the family – a naughty little brother to his two sisters, she tells me.
This was just one of many heart-wrenching accounts of loss to come out of those 566 families in the G-Block.
566 is a number that Mohammed Ansar and his group of young volunteers arrived at, after surveying the area over a week. He tells me,
“The men and women often get their salaries around the 10th or the 11th of the month. The fire broke out a day later. It took everything, including those meagre salaries. They lost everything that day.”