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Southern States - Tamil Nadu-Chennai Printer Friendly Page   Send this Article to a Friend

Slum fires render residents' lives miserable

By Shonali Muthalaly

After the blaze, residents must pull their lives together with whatever help is available. A slum at Kilpauk. - Photo: S.Thanthoni

CHENNAI SEPT. 16. After Sunday's fire at the Pudupet slum in Egmore, all that is left of 15 homes was a thick layer of ash, charred clothes, singed suitcases and an occasional misshapen plastic pot. However, like almost every other slum fire in the city this one too has slipped past quietly, leaving dozens of people homeless and with nothing more to their names than the clothes they were wearing when their homes and possessions went into flame.

"We have no utensils. Our children have no uniforms, books or bags to go to school. There's nothing to eat and nothing to wear," says Sarala, whose family was woken up at 10 p.m. when the fire broke out. The fire control room was alerted and, according to slum dwellers, fire engines arrived about half an hour after the fire began. The fire was raging by then. By midnight it had been put out and a portion of the slum razed to the ground.

"Some political people came in the morning. We were given breakfast and lunch and each family was promised Rs. 500. We don't know when and how we'll get the money though," says Jayashree. "We're all sleeping on the road now," interjects sixty-year-old Daniel.

"They're telling us they'll relocate us to Thoraipakkam. That's one hour away... How can we go? Our children go to school here, we work in this area and so do our husbands," Jayashree adds.

In fact, the Pudupet fire is `minor', according to fire service officials, compared to the slum fires Chennai has seen over the years. According to Control Room figures 27 huts burnt down in March in Kamaraj Colony, 35 in Kosapet in May and 30 huts in Kilpauk in June. This is besides smaller fires involving one and two huts.

"The huts are very close to each other and made of thatch. Often, the thatch is pasted with tar to protect the inhabitants from rain. The two are highly combustible," says S.K. Dogra, Director of Fire and Rescue Services. The fires generally break out because a stove or wood fire has not been put out.

Fighting `hutment area' fires is exceptionally difficult, according to Mr. Dogra. "There are huge crowds that are highly agitated and emotional. They pull the hoses to take them to their huts, accuse the personnel of not being on time and there are frequent attacks on fire fighters," he says.

In spite of all this, judging by the Control Room figures, Chennai's fire personnel appear to have drastically brought down the number of slum fires over the years by becoming more efficient and spreading awareness among public on fire safety. Through 2002, for instance, there were at least three cases of slum fires every month including large fires that gutted many homes such as a fire in April that damaged 250 huts and one in July that destroyed 200 huts.

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