Fixing the blame: Anatomy of a building collapse

Lets play a game. Its called ‘Fix the blame’. Its a multi-player game with the following participants: Greedy building contractors, corrupt municipal officials, the colluding police force and, lastly, the poor and needy people.

The first move is done by the greedy building contractors. They wish to earn profit from thin air and are willing to go to any lengths (i.e. stoop down to an abysmal level) to achieve that goal. They realize that they can earn enormous amounts of money by constructing cheap high-rise buildings in a matter of months on illegal land, bypassing all kinds of rules and regulations, and then selling them to desperate individuals in search of a roof over their heads. But obviously, they have to shell out some money to their ‘supervisors’ who are in the know of their greed. You can’t pick a fight with the crocodile if you want to swim in the lake, can you? You have to keep them happy.

So the next roll of the dice is from the corrupt politicians and municipal officials, who choose to look the other way when in fact its their obligation to stop a wrong deed from happening. All in the name of a few bundles of cash that pass into their hands from the building contractors. Some relevant persons from the law enforcement agencies, i.e. the police force, too get their share of this money to keep quiet and pretend they are patrolling a paradise.

Enter the poor and migrant population, who get the last chance at throwing the dice. With everything back home up in the air and job security in a new city being a myth, they are living with an uncertain future. A pair of clothes at the max, very little food, no shelter to call ‘home’ and an ever burgeoning family with hungry, crying infants to look after (figuratively) with not even a remote hope of medical care. Add to that the hot sun or the incessant rains. A rational way of thinking isn’t a priority when you have an empty stomach. Then they come across someone who is selling a house to renting it out at throwaway prices. It seems like a glimmer of hope in a dark alley, and they grab the opportunity, knowing fully well at the back of their minds that they are treading thin ice here, not knowing the background or the history of the builder in question. It solves today’s problems. They live to fight another day, and who knows what tomorrow might hold.

Unfortunately, that ‘tomorrow’ doesn’t hold good for them. Its no surprise that substandard material and shoddy practices have been used to construct the multi-storey buildings. Moreover, the land the high-rises are built upon is a covered sewer and is as unstable as quicksand. Their luck runs out. One such building comes crashing down to bury the people, and their hopes and ambitions, in a pile of rubble several meters high, leading to numerous deaths. A danger that everyone involved knew fully but chose to ignore.

Game over. Go ahead, fix the blame.

Thane Building Collapse (April 2013)

Thane Building Collapse (April 2013)

Last Thursday, an 8-storey building came crashing down in a congested suburb of the over-crowded city of Mumbai, India. 72 lives were extinguished. Almost the same number were injured, some severely. Many more have been rendered homeless. There are stories of 10 month old kids still waiting to be united with their moms and dads, who are dead, unfortunately. So who was at fault? Upon whom do you fix the blame?

And this is not an isolated case. Its not the first time something as catastrophic as this has happened, and its certainly not going to be the last. Its just an example of what happens in most developing countries. And this vice is here to stay. For most of the victims, its a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

(Image credits: indianexpress.com, indiatoday.intoday.in, dawn.com)

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A birthday and a death, put into perspective

Candle

Yesterday was the birthday of a friend of mine from my old college days. I hadn’t been able to keep in touch with him for some time now, so as I woke up in the morning I promised myself that I will dial his number in the afternoon to wish him and also catch up on his updates. With this feeling I entered office and started settling down into the day’s tasks.

About half-an-hour later, one person from the group that has been hired to mop the floors and keep them clean (house-keeping staff) came up to the Human Resource (HR) guys who sit in the cubicle behind mine, and asked for a leave from work. After being prompted for the reason, he said that he just got the news from his native place that his son had met with a fatal accident (he had drowned), and so needed to go visit. The calmness with which he said this really startled me. The HR guys said that he could take off immediately and that they would inform his contractor later.

It felt strange. I’ve been seeing this person for about 3 months now, working day in and day out, and have never thought that he too could have a family life. He comes across as a genuine sort of guy who could never shout at anyone and who would always take the first step back in any argument. Its almost like he is used to being ignored by the busy people running all around him. He was distressed, but surprisingly his face showed little emotion.

The thought stayed with me for most of the day, well after he had left and we got back to our daily activities. Later as I picked up the phone to call and wish my friend for his birthday, I couldn’t help connect the two events. On a day when he would be celebrating the occasion of his birth, some person somewhere would be mourning a death. Come to think of it, on a planet where the human population is fast approaching 7 billion, this pattern will be followed every single day. Contrasts do not come starker than this.

Perhaps, this is an indication of how we should value our lives, while we have the chance to do so.

Three heart-rending images forever etched in my memory

The first thing you will notice about this article is that, though the title talks about ‘images’, I haven’t shared any.

The reason? I never had the images.

Then where did I see them? The first one while I was driving back home from a friend’s place on a hot and sultry Sunday evening a few years ago, and the other two in a couple of news broadcasts on the popular TV news channels BBC and CNN.

What was so special about them? The scenes have been etched in my memory like hard images. Perhaps it was my general mood today that brought these memories out.

The first one is of a small kid I came across selling balloons at a traffic junction. He was about 6-7 years old, and that’s about where his childhood seemed to end. Everything beyond that was in shambles – his clothes, his facial expressions, and more importantly, his future. In an age when he should have played merrily with those balloons, he was selling them. Probably he had had to roam around in the scorching sun selling them all day, and it was telling on his body language. He was tired, perhaps severely hungry too, but it was just about 8pm so there was going to be no respite for another couple of hours at least. When he knocked on our car window, I could see his face bordered with desperation. I remember purchasing a few balloons from him that day, rather, I couldn’t help not to. Over the years, I’ve seen his siblings sell balloons and flowers on that traffic junction. Since they are nomads they don’t stick to one place and move all over the city. Sometimes I still see that kid on that junction. He has grown up by a few years and his face has now matured, or lets say, has turned stony and impenetrable. He doesn’t sell balloons anymore, well, how could he? He has given away the colors of his childhood, bit by bit, with every balloon he has sold.

The second one is of a young Chinese teen and his old mother. BBC was running a news story on how the dreaded AIDS disease was spreading its wings in the remote Chinese provinces. It showed the example of a young man in his early teens who had gone to a local blood donation camp and had unfortunately contracted the disease there. His condition, the doctors said, wasn’t very good and they didn’t give him much chances of surviving beyond a few months. Apparently, his poor family knew about his condition and had resigned to his fate. He was lying there on the makeshift bed outside his thatched-roof house with his head on his old mother’s lap. Most people (me included) will identify sleeping with their heads on their mother’s laps with happier childhood times. The theme here, though, was much too sombre. Their faces told their story. His mother’s face especially, was stone cold. She wasn’t crying. She wasn’t showing the disappointment or shock that you would associate with a woman who was about to loose her beloved son forever. She just stared at the camera coldly. Probably she hadn’t come to terms with this tragedy mentally. The emotion in that shot was just too much to forget.

The third one is from the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York City in the USA. There was despair and gloom everywhere after the airplanes struck the World Trade Center twin towers and they collapsed ending the lives of thousands. As rescue workers steadily searched through the rubble, it took a few days for the authorities to piece together the list of the dead, the injured and the missing. That was quite understandable considering the scale of the devastation. For the common man, though, those were testing times. I remember CNN running a story on the devastation and the rescue efforts. The video showed a woman standing a few meters from Ground Zero, wearing a big placard on her front and back, which read – “Have you seen him?” – along with a picture of a man’s face. Presumably the man was her close relative or friend, probably even her husband, and was missing since the day of the disaster. I’ve always thought that it is better to hear the news of someone’s death rather than the news of that person being missing. Her face was heart-rending. I remember watching the same woman in other news reports till many days after the incident, still standing in front of the rubble with the placards on her. What was more depressing is that more and more people started gathering in NYC searching desperately for their missing loved ones. The scenes were almost reminiscent of the – “Wanted a decent job” – placards that people used wear during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, and were just as moving.

Even today, tears well up in my eyes whenever I think of these images. I’m sure other people would have seen or experienced equally tragic scenes in their lives, and would have had an equally tough time managing those memories. People who have been in or have seen the horrors of war from close quarters might probably agree with me. I hope I can do my bit to alleviate people from their misery if and when I come across such incidences in the future, but more than that I hope I don’t come across any more such events in the first place!