Sunday, December 19, 2010

When a building at Laxmi Nagar in East Delhi collapsed on 15th November, killing at least 70 people, the media did not generally permit the grievous loss of so many lives to speak for itself....

Before the dust from the fallen masonry had settled, before the broken bodies had been identified and cremated or buried, new horror stories were spun out of the tragic incident. A new kind of 'tragedy tourism' had been discovered, knots of onlookers, bystanders who had forfeited their title to innocence, ghouls who had come to be close to the site of the macabre happenings. Once the owner had been made known, tales of his unique rapacity and exploitation were heard. He was charging more than 2500 rupees a month for a room that was little more than a cupboard, and was even renting space under the staircases for 350 rupees a month. The police failed to appear on the scene until more than an hour and a half after the collapse. Later, false relatives appeared, claiming corpses to whom they were not kin, in order to avail themselves of the compensation hastily promised by politicians. There were even tales - quite untrue - that local people had been less charitable than they might have been in their response to the loss of life, while some people were reported to have been looting the scanty belongings of the deceased. Rumours that children had been working in an illicit factory in the basement, a conviction that the numbers of dead was higher than the official count, that officials had begun filling in the improvised mass grave even before all the bodies had been retrieved - everything added to an impression of grisly festival. Even the opportunistic sellers of snacks had, in some versions of the story, made their appearance on the scene, while airlines were charging 10,000 rupees to 'repatriate' the exiled bodies to their home in Bihar and West Bengal.

Meanwhile, the Cyclops lens of the ubiquitous cameras stared into the faces of the injured and the bereaved, requiring that they give some account of themselves in misfortune. What benign fate had led a mother to go the market to buy vegetables at the very moment when her children's lives were forfeit? Who had been working late, and had returned home to find his loved ones buried beneath the rubble? Survivors, their heads covered in bandages, hands still trembling with fear, spoke into the furry batons of microphones, informing those who had a right to know of the last words of their terminally injured husbands and children.

Of course, the principal object of hatred was the malefactor who owned the building. He was found to have had many cases against him, from selling illegal liquor to trading in adulterated cement. He had added at least two floors beyond the maximum permitted height of ground floor plus two. Close to the ruined building is another of his properties, which was evacuated the following day: unplastered, the raw red bricks with their layers of uneven cement, looked exactly what it was - a place for the vertical stacking of the unwanted poor, those whose hutments had been destroyed in the interests of 'beautifying' Delhi, a task that now surely exceeds the skill of the most accomplished architectural cosmetic surgeons in the world.

Why had so many harsh untruths been told in this context? Perhaps it is not sufficiently newsworthy that poor migrants have come from distant states for the privilege of pulling rickshaws, serving as maids and washerwomen, sellers of vegetables and other daily amenities for the middle class, only to find that their appointment with a better life turns out to be a date with premature and grisly death. The poor, whose negligible purchasing power scarcely registers on the monitors of progress and development, are a majority in India whose largely submerged labour is indispensable to the country's supposed 'emergence.' The continuing scams, scandals and corruption of elites throw into stark relief the self-denial, sacrifice and largely unrewarded virtue of the urban poor. Such a contrast cannot be. The poor, too, must be sullied by the grim ideology of a fallen human nature, whose redemption is to be attained only through the savage mysteries of wealth-creation. {Read on}