Laxmi Nagar, a congested area in New Delhi, where a five-storey building collapsed two days back is one of the places in the populous capital where dreams begin for many, as it did for me about ten years ago. A lot of people find accommodation in Laxmi Nagar every day, many of whom come to the city bearing dreams of a brighter future.
Laxmi Nagar is a sprawling concatenation of residential apartments and commercial enterprises. Narrow lanes crisscross the landscape on which stand towering apartments many of which may be built on encroached lands. On either side of these narrow lanes are parked vehicles, mostly two-wheelers and sometimes cars too, making the lanes still narrower. The ground floors of most of the apartments are shops dealing in a variety of items ranging from grocery to hardware. There are also restaurants to cater to all palates, Punjabi, Kashmiri, North Indian or South Indian. Quite a few cubicles belong to people who call themselves property dealers. If you are looking for accommodation in the area, all you have to do is to approach one of these property dealers and describe your requirements, and voila your accommodation is ready in a jiffy. Wayside peddlers too find their niches wherever space can be found. Sometimes the lanes between two apartments are as narrow as three feet, but they too will carry the burden of a few parked two-wheelers. Occasionally a bike or a scooter will snake through such lanes too.
Quite many new entrants to Delhi must have begun the quest for their El Dorado from this place. Most of the residents of the ill-fated apartment that fell like a stack of cards were labourers from West Bengal and Bihar. The building also housed a few illegal small scale industrial units, according to the residents of the area. Newspapers report that the owner of the building is a person with criminal records. There are charges of murder, attempted murder and theft against him. The people of Lalita Park, the area where the building was located, are reported to have described him as a mafia leader.
Criminals have a unique talent for entering the real estate business which yields profits as lucrative as Indian politics does. Alphonse Kannanthanam had tried to decriminalise the real estate business during his tenure as the Commissioner of Delhi Development Authority [DDA] from 1992 to 1997. He demolished 14,310 illegal structures and earned the soubriquet of ‘the Demolition Man’ along with the fury of the construction mafia. The mafia got him out of Delhi as soon as they could. [A former IAS officer, now he is a member of the Kerala legislative assembly.] When the tragedy occurred at Lalita Park, Kannanthanam said that the Delhi government and its agencies are as responsible as the construction mafia for the illegal construction that constantly takes place in Delhi.
Delhi requires about 100,000 new residences every year for the people who flock to the city in pursuit of their dreams. DDA constructs about 5,000 a year. DDA allegedly has underground links with the construction mafia; it would rather let the mafia do more construction works.
The safety of the people cannot be one of the concerns of any mafia group. Their only concern, in fact, is the augmenting digits in their bank balances whether in India or Switzerland. How many more people will have to sacrifice their lives, let alone their dreams, before the vulpine rapacity of some other people will abate?
If only they would understand the meaning of the lines from the Tamil classic, Thirukkural: Tread softly, for you are treading upon my dreams.
I dedicate this article to the 70-odd families that lived in the ill-fated apartment that was just 15 years old. Lalita Park is the place that housed me for a month in 2001 when I landed in Delhi bearing a faint dream in my glum heart. The relentless drone of the city that I was experiencing for the first time still echoes in my heart whose gloom was eventually soothed by a quiet corner in the outskirts of the city.