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Wednesday, Aug 21, 2019

Mumbai’s civic system is broken but unlikely to be fixed

Lives lost in the fire at Kamala Mills compound is a matter of shame for a city which, in the last 20-25 years, has pursued the dream of being an international finance centre

mumbai Updated: Jan 03, 2018 21:57 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Smruti Koppikar
Hindustan Times
Charred remains of the restaurants at Kamala Mills compound, Lower Parel.
Charred remains of the restaurants at Kamala Mills compound, Lower Parel. (PTI)

If there was ever a compendium of the kinds of deaths in Mumbai, it would make for bizarre reading. In the last year itself, Mumbaiites have died in the following ways: by falling into open manholes as they negotiated flooded roads, by plunging to death in manholes while working there because the rope that held them snapped, by getting trapped while cleaning sewers, by tripping over badly-laid paver blocks on pavements and inner roads, by simply walking on roads when large trees collapsed, by riding their two-wheelers which hit potholes and made them lose balance, by going out to restaurants which were fire traps, by working in galas and units which were fire traps, by being on the roads when BEST buses trundled down at high speeds, by negotiating a foot over bridge at railway stations, and so on.

These deaths are a matter of shame for a city which, in the last 20-25 years, has pursued the dream of being an international finance centre. Each of these deaths through 2017 should have made Mumbai’s planners, policy wonks and administrators hang their heads in shame, and step down from their exalted positions of power. Even one death in such circumstances is one too many, and completely unforgivable.

But it isn’t just the number of people dead; it is the manner in which they lost their lives. They were all victims of a civic system that is broken and bent out of shape, dishonest and unethical, unprofessional and uncaring of human lives it is lawfully responsible for. Those who know the ways and have the means to negotiate this crooked labyrinth come out on top. But at the end of the day, a broken system hits every citizen. The lax fire safety norms meant 12 workers died in a farsan factory in Kairani Compound in Saki Naka, and 14 people who had gone out to dine perished in an upscale resto-bar in Kamala Mills.

Peruse the details in these incidents and any of the circumstances which took the lives of Mumbaiites. There’s a pattern: An appalling disregard of rules and indifference to outcomes. The framework of rules does exist; these rules and laws were wilfully bypassed, ignored or over-ridden, by officials mandated to enforce them. The resto-bars in Kamala Mills, for example, had been served notices for violating rules but action was not taken thereafter. Why?

The answer came from Mumbai’s municipal commissioner himself after the Kamala Mills tragedy. Ajoy Mehta, under fire and understandably so, admitted to sections of media that there has been negligence and connivance by civic officers, which allowed irregularities and illegalities, which eventually took lives. This is dereliction of duty. Officers protected irresponsible and careless contractors hired to construct roads, lay pavements, clear nullahs, or did not pursue action against delinquent owners of establishments.

In a working system with the citizen as its focus, such officers would have been stripped of their jobs and contractors would have been behind bars, unable to give or get the next contract. In Mumbai’s broken system, they are able to hold citizens to ransom. Mehta claimed to have broken their backs. We do not see the results. In the BMC, each of the city’s 24 wards is under the charge of an assistant municipal commissioner with different departments reporting to him/her. But where does – or should – the buck stop? Can Mehta genuinely escape responsibility, never mind his good intentions?

At best, officers down the line are suspended or transferred (as if transfer is a penalty), and high visibility action is taken.

The core issue, indeed the challenge, is that the system from the planning and licence stage and enforcement needs a thorough overhaul. The citizen has to be the focus. This calls for political action. That’s why it is unlikely to happen anytime soon. And that’s why all we will have is our grief and outrage at horrific incidents and mindless deaths.

First Published: Jan 03, 2018 21:57 IST

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