Sunday, 27 November 2011

Burning Down the House: The Fire at Crawford Market

I admit that sometimes there are coincidences, and these coincidences can play into someone’s hands. But once in a while some coincidences play so conveniently into someone’s hands that they shout out for attention.

Right bang in the heart of South Bombay, close to the main railway terminus, is a huge shopping area known as Crawford Market. It comprises everything from large stores to pavement stalls, and it’s a place where you can buy literally everything from electronics goods to clothing to dried fruit to puppies – and all at absurd knock-offs from the official price. Cheap, affordable goods being sold from possibly the most commercially valuable territory in all of India, as it happens. On top of which, of course, it employs many thousand people as salespersons, sign painters, cleaners, transporters, security guards and the like – people who never would have found employment otherwise.

Crawford Market in October 2011 (photo by me)

A most valuable resource, you’ll admit.

Very early yesterday morning, most of Crawford Market burned down in a mysterious fire. Hundreds of shops, including two entire complexes, were burned down to ashes. The damage ran into the hundreds of millions – and much, much more when you factor in the lost livelihood of the people employed there.

It’s a tragedy on so many levels, quite apart from the loss of an affordable shopping destination.

The shop owners, for instance, have lost not just their business premises but their entire stocks and furnishings. I can assure you that almost none of them will have had fire insurance, for three reasons. First, the average Indian is incredibly loath to purchase insurance, preferring to believe that nothing will ever happen to him. Secondly, in the case of the smallest stallholders, who live pretty much on their daily earnings, insurance was never affordable anyway. And the third reason is the fact that most business in markets like Crawford tend to be, strictly speaking, illegal; the stock and turnover are deliberately underreported for tax purposes, not surprising when you remember that the USP of the market is its low price structure and therefore low profit per unit sales. And the animal trade is, quite simply, against the law, so it never gets a mention.

Therefore, these people have all lost everything.

The people who depend on them – their employees and their dependents – have lost everything too, and may well be forced to leave the city and look elsewhere for what employment they can find in an economy where actual unemployment is sky-high and inflation runs at over 10%. Incidentally, I ought to mention that according to the official report, nobody died or was hurt (except for three firemen hospitalised for smoke inhalation) in the fire. I don’t believe it. Most Indian businesses of the Crawford market type will have housed the shop assistants on the premises after working hours. It works out for everyone; the assistants don’t have to find a place to stay (a difficult thing in Bombay, where commutes of six hours are not uncommon) while the shop owner has security against burglary. However, this kind of thing is completely illegal according to the licensing terms which prohibit residential use of commercial property. Hence, if anyone dies or is injured, the shop owner has a vested interest in hushing it up with a few judicious bribes. If the dead or injured person has a family, that family will probably be very poor, uneducated, and can be paid off with a relatively trivial amount of money. It happens all the time.

Tragedy all around, as I said. Except for some.

For whom, then, might it not have been a tragedy?

Here’s where the coincidence comes in.

Just a day before the market burned down, India’s ultra Big Business friendly government pushed through legislation – which was opposed even by its own allies – to allow foreign shopping chains like Wal-Mart to own up to 51% of businesses in India. In effect, it throws open India’s economy to the same kind of poisonous influence that has ruined the small shopkeeper and businessman in the US; not surprising, when you consider just how cravenly pro-American this Indian government is.

Now, remember that Crawford Market is sited on some of the most commercially valuable property in India. The builders and land mafia – and Bombay has the most rapacious mafia in Asia outside the yakuza – have long been slavering at the chance to “develop” it for upscale malls and gigantic commercial complexes which can be resold to the foreign conglomerates. But there was a hurdle, in the shape of the business owners and others who worked there.

Even if the national government had thrown the door open for Wal-Mart and the others, actual possession of the site posed a significant problem. Evicting the shop owners and others would have been politically impossible without igniting a firestorm of protest about favouring rich foreigners at the expense of poor Indians, something this government can ill afford when it’s already on the ropes politically and highly unlikely to survive in office after the next election. Yet, the Americans had to be kept happy – they had to be given their prime real estate, or else.

At the same time, the shopping complex from which the blaze actually started belonged to a notorious mafia boss named Dawood Ibrahim, who’s lived in Pakistan for many years and is wanted by Interpol, among others. The complex is allegedly “disputed property”, but was still used by plenty of businesses. Destroying it would remove a headache for the government.

So, the fire was incredibly convenient for many people in a position to benefit, so much so that even if it was a coincidence, they couldn’t have timed it better if they’d tried

I'll also note that the coverage given by media sources to the fire seems to depend on their closeness to the (mis)ruling Congress party. The more sycophantic they are to the Congress, the less they covered it. Could it be because they don't want speculation on who benefits?

Yes, I’m probably cynical. But then I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t be.

Further reading:

1 comment:

  1. What an amazing picture!

    I was skeptical of your conspiracy up top when you started, but...
    Hey, big business is perfectly capable of this. The fact is, the whole place was probably a tinderbox waiting for a spark, but... the Big Guys knew that, too.

    What a tragedy. And in its wake, more Walmartization of the world, probably.
    Now everywhere can be like the geography of nowhere.


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