They dreamt of securing good educations for their siblings, of owning 25-gaj homes.
All these promises that the national capital held for them came crashing down on Friday evening, when a fire in a three-storey commercial building in northwest Delhi’s Mundka area claimed at least 27 lives, mostly women.
Five kilometres from the fire site, Meera Devi, 35, holds her two month old baby – her seventh – in the scorching heat outside her one-room house, roofed with asbestos, in Bhagya Vihar. The family from Bihar has lived here for 15 years.
Meera is living through a different kind of trauma – her daughter Nisha Kumari, 19, is missing after the fire. Nisha worked in a CCTV packaging unit in the building.
A pall of gloom has descended on the house. Meera was rebuffed by the Sanjay Gandhi hospital earlier in the day. Nevertheless, she is ready to visit it again to locate her missing daughter.
A few neighbours advise her to first visit the fire site where, they say, the media “will listen to her”. Meera agrees, but then decides against it. Meanwhile, her husband sleeps on the floor, drunk.
“He should at least help his wife,” a neighbour says. “In the morning, she had gone alone to the hospital. He has no concern about his family.”
Meera tells Newslaundry that Nisha, the second of her seven children, was the only breadwinner in the family, earning Rs 7,000 a month.
“What can I say? Everything has been ruined,” she says.”...My husband spends his earnings on buying liquor. Nisha was our only hope.”
Nisha’s friend Pinki recalls how she was determined to provide a good education to her siblings. “There was this talk of her marriage. But she refused, saying, ‘Who will take care of my family if I get married?’”
Like Nisha, there were 30-40 other women from Bhagya Vihar who worked in the CCTV packaging unit. All of them were aged between 18 and 35 and have been living in Delhi for several years. Like other low-income colonies in Delhi, Bagya Vihar has similar features: crammed lanes, boxy houses, lack of sewage, and no roads at some places.
A few metres from Nisha’s house, a locked, bare-brick wall rented house tells the tale of a family’s unending search for their daughter Pooja, 19, who, according to neighbours, worked as a computer operator in the unit for three months. Pooja is missing after last night’s fire.
Pooja’s father died before she was born. Her ailing mother and younger sister, who is in college, were at the hospital to look for her body. The news has not been broken yet to Pooja’s youngest sister, as she had to take a Class 10 exam.
“We told her that Pooja was at the hospital,” says Renu Upadhyay, a neighbour.
Another neighbour, Dileep Kumar, says, “The tragedy is unbearable. They could barely eke out a living. Now this. God can’t be so unkind to the poor.” Neighbours recall that Pooja firmly believed in education and was a doting sister.
Another woman in Bhagya Vihar, Yashoda Devi, was charred to death in the fire. Neighbours and family members describe her as wanting the best education for her three children. Employed at the unit for three years, Yashodha, 39, was also instrumental in helping many get jobs at the unit.
“She was always the first person to help women who were looking for employment,” says Sheila, her sister-in-law.
Yashoda’s husband works in a coal mine in Rajasthan. “Now she is gone, who will look after the kids?” asks the husband’s mother, breaking down.
In the next lane, a group of people are mourning the death of Ranju Devi, 32. Her two sons and eldest daughter, a student of Class 10, are still coming to terms with the loss. “Her husband works as a labourer,” says Poonam, a neighbour. “She joined the unit after Diwali to ensure her children had good food and education.”