The Mumbra building collapse highlights the ugly reality behind lofty promises of world-class housing.

On Thursday April 4, the earth shook. Not because there was an earthquake. It trembled when the deadly mix of sand pretending to be cement brought down a seven-storey building in Mumbra, north of Mumbai, like “a pack of cards”. This was not an accident: it was death by design.

The murky stories of collusion between municipal officials, the local police and the builders are now surfacing. For a few lakhs, even a few thousand rupees, these officials looked the other way while the merchants of death went about building something that was destined to collapse. There was illegality written into every word of the script — from the land deal to the building permissions to even the electricity connection. What levels of cynicism and heartlessness must it require for people to actually construct a building, entice poor and desperate people to occupy it while construction continues, and then watch it collapse on top of these unwary residents?

The 75 men, women and children who died and the over 60 injured committed no crime. Their only fault was to believe that a “pucca” house is any structure built of brick and cement. And if it is multi-storied, it must be even stronger. For unlike their temporary structures in the slums, they presumed that such construction must require some engineering expertise.

It is too late for many of them to realise how wrong they were. There are heartrending stories of workers who brought their families from their villages because finally, they could “afford” a house. An entire family from Nepal has been wiped out, leaving only a 10-year-old boy and the grandparents who are still in Nepal. Infants have been orphaned; families are left without their main breadwinner. Every story is the same. They heard they could rent a place cheap and moved in.

The ripples from the collapse of this one building will be felt much farther than its immediate neighbourhood. One of the most disturbing aspects is the extent of illegality. When you have the Chief Minister of the state acknowledging that nine out of 10 buildings in the area were illegal, you know that this is not the story of one building falling down. How can there be such a state of affairs without rampant collusion at every level? If the CM had said 10 per cent — or even 20 per cent — of the buildings were illegal, one could have accepted that the authorities were making an effort to check illegality but some just slipped through the cracks. But 90 per cent?

While the illegality is excavated, what does this collapse say about the desperation for housing in a city like Mumbai where the majority can only dream of an affordable house in their lifetime while a minority is spoilt for choice? It suggests that if you chance on a house you think is affordable, it is likely to become a nightmare before long. It is within your price range only because corners have been cut at every step of the way. In other words, if you are poor, you will find “affordable” if you are willing to accept “illegal”.

Try and imagine what a poor family, living for generations in one of Mumbai’s many slums, would feel right now. For the women, in particular, the dream of a ‘pucca’ house carries with it the hope of some dignity because of a toilet in the house, and a reduction in the daily drudgery of collecting scarce water. Although life in the seven-storey structures built as part of the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme is far from perfect, no woman will refuse to take the keys to a flat in one of these structures. But these are the women whose families are considered “eligible” depending on their ability to prove that they have lived in that particular slum before the government-ordained “cut-off” date.

What of those who not eligible, or who came to the city in the last 10 years, or who lived in one of the many old, dilapidated buildings that are on the verge of collapse? These are the people who hunt for rental housing and often the only choice for them is buildings like the one that collapsed. Some might not collapse. But they are falling apart within months of completion. And if you are one of these people who thought you had got a bargain, you count your blessings that you have a roof over your head and pray that it will not come down on you one day.

This then is the true picture of housing not just in Mumbai but in all our cities. It is not what you can easily be deluded to believe — the story of the “world-class” housing advertised in pretty pictures on the front pages of practically every newspaper and on large hoardings. It is the ugly reality represented by the horrifying images of the building collapse in Mumbra. Cheap, dangerous, illegal constructions are spawning everywhere, with the blessings of the people in power. Everyone is making money — while the poor are literally getting crushed.

E- mail: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com