Saki Naka is north of Bombay airport, a densely packed area that might just stand for 21st-century urban India. Grimy workshops and matchbox shacks alongside gleaming glass structures—the banks and outsourcers at the leading edge of India’s rosy service industry.

The contrast is ironic, nearly surreal: you can emerge from some of the world’s spiffiest office spaces right into filth on the road. Street vendors have set up their stalls in the muck, people step through it, choking traffic stop-starts past it. Today, the muck lies thicker on the ground than usual because of the enormous downpour on July 26: 37 inches in one Bombay day, a good yearly total for much of India—and that only heightens the irony.
Up the road from these sleek mo
numents—and the slush—of modern India, the downpour caused a hill to collapse.

Like mold, slum hutments swallowed that hill over the last few years. When the downpour set the slope sliding, several ramshackle huts on the crest tumbled down onto the mud and boulders of the hill, and that entire mess crashed onto the flimsy huts below. Nobody knows quite how many huts disappeared—I hear numbers from 60 all the way up to 300—but more certain is this: over the next three days, rescue workers brought out 75 bodies.

I’m there while three of those emerge, and this is how it goes.

With some difficulty, the workers tease the body from the enormous rocks and lay it on a stretcher. Voices yell, “Do it carefully!” and “We need some rope!” They cover it with an incongruous gold sheet; over that, they wrap a blanket, then a red sheet, then they tie it all down with a long strip of gold.

The stretcher passes down the long line of uniformed rescue workers. Four men carry it down the slippery, muddy road to a door with a hand-painted sign that says, “Moon Engineering Works, Sakinaka, Netaji Nagar.”
Just so is Sunita Yadav, 27-year-old wife of Ramdayal Yadav, who trudges in tears behind her, brought out from a collapsed hillside.

It has taken nearly four days of boulder-shifting and body-extracting to finally get Sunita—the 71st body—out. Ramdayal has stood here through all those dismal wet days, knowing his family is destroyed, but needing to see them brought out. With Sunita, the rescue men found their 3-year-old son, Pravin. An hour earlier, they had brought Komal, their 1-year-old daughter, down from the rocks: a bundle so small, so wispy, that it is only its presence on a stretcher that says this was once a little person.

And all three bodies are set down side-by-side in the shack that was once Moon Engineering Works, but that this landslide has turned into a makeshift morgue. All three are sprayed with a thin grey liquid pumped out of a bucket by two bored-looking—71 bodies and counting, after all—municipal workers.

And just so do Sunita, Pravin, and Komal—this mother and her two kids who died when the hill fell out from under their shack and the great boulders crushed them as they tumbled through the rain and mud—just so does Ramdayal’s family get their last rites. The municipality sprays them with disinfectant.

Dejected, I return to the hillside, where I learn of another irony. This hill has collapsed before—”the last time, in two-zero-zero-one,” a man tells me, spelling out the year for no clear reason. It wasn’t nearly as disastrous then. But within days in 2001, huts were back on the crumbly slope again.

Why would anyone choose to live with a risk like this? One reason: it’s not really a choice. In 21st-century Bombay that generates jobs hand-over-fist, affordable rental housing is a chimera that too many chase. So one way to get a few square feet to call home is to pay some slum tough a few thousand rupees.

In turn, he might set you up on the Saki Naka hill.

Another irony is that in the periodic paroxysms of “slum clearance” that convulse this city, some people from Saki Naka were actually housed in nearby blocks of flats. But many could not afford the monthly rent of Rs. 600 ($14). So they moved back. You pay the slum tough, at least you get a place to call your own, access to water, and even a possibly stolen electricity connection. And with all that, you take the risk of the ground falling under you.

Reaching the site of the slide, where the rescue machinery and personnel are at work, is hard. We approach it initially on a greatly potholed road, a huge pile of garbage nearly blocks us off, then our ricksha cannot go further. We walk the rest of the way, through lanes only wide enough for one, lined with open drains and awash in rainwater and trash, winding through the slum in a series of abrupt turns.

But the final stretch? Nearly a boulevard. Narrow still, but wide enough for a truck to pass. Underfoot is wet, slippery, gleaming mud that we have no choice but to step into. This muddy strip leads gently up to a roughly rectangular space against the hill, where we are surrounded by the enormous boulders and assorted rubble of the landslide. On top of that, like giant praying mantises waving their huge limbs, are four excavators clearing the debris with their articulated arms.

Watching them, the question comes to mind: how did these large machines get here?

Answer: along that wet boulevard. And that’s the final irony in this muddy tragedy. That “road” did not exist before the rain came. For rescue equipment to reach the site, the city administration had to clear a road through the slum. To do that, they had to demolish several dozen more huts.

That is, to get help to the victims of a landslide that destroyed a hundred or more huts, the helpers had to destroy still more huts. Glass buildings and filth, destroyed huts upon destroyed huts: somewhere in there is a lesson about India in the 21st.

A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.

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