Words cannot describe the horrendous tragedy in a Mumbai rooftop restaurant in the early hours of Friday which claimed 14 lives and left several more injured, some seriously. Nor can words describe the anger and disgust against the civic authorities, which despite knowing that a huge number of eateries and bars are run illegally, without adequate fire and other safety provisions, continue to pay lip service to the well-being of the people while actually being in league with the corrupt businessmen. Without bribes at every level from the politicians to the civic authorities to the local police, there is no way even a fully kosher eating joint with all the relevant safety measures in place can operate for a day.
The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation might be the richest municipal body in the country, but by all accounts, it also seems to be the most corrupt. Notwithstanding the pro forma condemnation of the politicians, officials and others directly responsible for ensuring that the 1Above, the rooftop vegetarian-only resto-bar in the Kamala Mills Compound complex in central Mumbai, it is a public secret that the coffers of the Shiv Sena, which controls the BMC, are filled with just the kind of donations/bribes given by the operators of such illegal eating and drinking places. Suspension of five or even fifty employees following the grotesque loss of life, some barely out of their teens, some out for a merry birthday celebration, cannot be compensated by such commonplace actions.
It is now routine for the authorities to effect a show of toughness after every tragedy and then get back to the normal of civic apathy, civic corruption, civic neglect and to a complete unconcern for the safety of citizens. Back in October 2015, when a fire at a Kurla hotel had claimed eight lives, including seven students, more or less the same actions, same promises and same pious words were on display from the city elders. Yet, true to type, it was back to normal soon. The truth is that Bombay as a metropolis has been in terrible decline, its infrastructure is creaking under the weight of a growing population, civic neglect and apathy. Roads are badly pot-holed, garbage dumps flowing full without anyone caring to clear them for days on end, water and power supply is erratic and expensive and basic civic services such as the provision of birth and death certificates is contingent on baksheesh.
The whole system reeks of corruption and malfeasance. An average elected member of the BMC, as also the permanent employee in the building, licensing and fire department reportedly earns a huge fortune in illicit payments. Of course, there will be men and women of integrity as well, but they are far outnumbered by those who actually corrupt the system. The disclosure that 1Above resto-bar was served a notice by the civic authorities does not lessen the criminal complicity of the civic body; in fact, it further compounds it insofar as it was allowed to continue operations and thus, risk human lives despite it lacking the wherewithal to handle a fire-emergency.
Also, the fact that the former mill area in central Mumbai was allowed to be commercially exploited for shopping malls and other business activities thanks, no doubt, to rampant and humongous corruption at every level, from the very top in the State government to the BMC, only choked further whatever little chance the high-density megapolis had of having a few more open spaces. It was scandalous that the mills were first nationalised in the name of socialism, and, later, auctioned off when textile industry became unviable within the city limits, but to allow the commercial exploitation of mill lands for private profit and greed was a blow to the city.
The swanky shopping malls and commercial towers now magnify the extreme poverty and obscene riches in a single frame in India’s commercial capital. At another level, the rot in the BMC is prevalent in every big and small city in the country. At least after the gruesome and wholly avoidable loss of lives in the fire in 1Above, patrons can insist on verifying whether the establishment they are keen to visit has the requisite permissions. Unfortunately, everyone from the civic leaders to the BMC officials and the entire neta class, and above all, the ordinary people who patronise the illegally run joints, will revert to the ‘business as usual’ mode. We lack the collective will to penalise the wrong-doers. For proof, witness how all the 2G scamsters seem to have got away.