The Karad Fire Crisis

Our members in Karad, Maharashtra went through a crisis in February 2022 as a result of various political, social, personal stigma. This is their, and our attempt to document what happened.

*Karad is in Satara district, in the Indian state of Maharashtra.
*SANGRAM is a registered nonprofit organization whose primary focus is working with marginalized groups to prevent Gender Based Violence and HIV and to provide care and support for group members who are in need. The nongovernmental organization’s (NGO’s) activities build on the concept of asserting rights and the core tenet that communities have the ability to find their own solutions. SANGRAM, established in 1992 in Sangli, Maharashtra, has grown into a series of collective empowerment groups for stigmatized communities (sex workers, MSM, and transgender individuals) in six districts of southern Maharashtra and northern Karnataka.
*Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP) is one such collective group of 5,000 women in sex work in Maharashtra and North Karnataka. Since 1990, they have been working on issues of health and human rights of sex workers. They serve as a model of a strong sex workers collective in the region, at the local, national, and international level. Importantly, VAMP along with its own constituency of people in sex work, also works with transport and migrant workers in the region.

On 19th February at 2:30 a.m, Raju Naik from Sangram received a phone call from the Karad community. The houses in Karad were on fire. This call was made by Sujata, Meena and Vaishali. There were loud sounds of cries and shouts. After this call, Raju called Kiran, Meenakshi and Ayeesha. Kiran and Ayeesha were ready but Meenakshi’s daughter recently delivered a baby so she did not go. They started immediately and reached Karad at 4:30 am. When we reached, we found that all 14 houses were burnt to ashes. The smoke was still on. We saw the fire brigade trying to extinguish the fire. When we reached the community, we saw that all the women had been seated in the school nearby. They were crying bitterly, some had lost the money, some their valuables like gold and some the books of their children. We asked the women how the incident took place.

The Incident

The women told us that they slept after dinner at around 11 and around 1:30 they started feeling the heat. The roof of the house was getting warm. When they came out of the houses they saw the fire everywhere and they started shouting loudly. They also saw that 7 to 8 houses were bolted from outside and the woman inside was shouting. We tried to open those bolts but they had become so hot that it was difficult to touch them. Even then we tried hard and open the bolts and started running wherever we found place. The gas cylinders from two houses were also burst. This burst was so strong that the stand of the cylinder fell number of feet away from that house. 10 vehicles of fire brigade came to the place and were trying to extinguish the fire. The fire was not reducing at all. Then there is a water tank of the municipal corporation near this place which is very big. So big pipe was connected directly to this water tank and the water was being sprayed with full pressure on the fire then the fire was extinguished but there was heavy smoke. The woman had to say that it was not a fire caught by mistake but was done on purpose. One girl who was in 10th standard her books burnt completely and she was constantly saying that her exams are close by and how will she study now. This atmosphere has really shaken us up. The women were saying that they are left with only the clothes that they are wearing.

Rest all is burnt to ashes.

“We have lost the strength to stand up again”

There was an emergency list of groceries, and utility items prepared by VAMP members on the same day; February 19th 2022 to see what the victims needed immediately.

Saris, blouses, petticoats, mats and emergency grocery items were brought to the area.

There were attempts to say that the fire occurred naturally, but the women said- “Look at how the news has spread. The news says that four cylinders exploded, but how they exploded, who lit the fire, there is no way to know. There is a need to file an FIR”.

The women wanted to write to the police and file a complaint that the fire was not an accident. However, they were only allowed to file one application, but only after a long argument about calling it an intent to hurt the women instead of an accident. The women, along with allies and supporters stayed in the police station until they filed the FIR in the way they wanted.

The police tried to cover up the actual incident. They came to assess the damage that was caused, they wrote a panchnama to see what all has been destroyed. We asked them/ whether this was deliberately done because the door was locked from outside and there was the smell of petrol. The fire was lit from a closed room. They have come to enquire so that the women get help from the government. They asked us to file a request/complaint and that they will investigate further. They said they are getting the letter ready in the given format, and that this is for the women to get help from the government.

20th February, 2022

Meanwhile, SANGRAM reaches out to the media to change the narrative; the fire was not natural but deliberately caused.

Legal services gets into the act to force women to accept that it was a fire of natural causes and to take relief on those grounds.

We refused.

“These people are forcing us to believe that the fire is accidental. We will think properly and write a letter to DLSA we will not give any letter as per what they are asking us to do”

Relief poured in from various community and non community members in diverse ways- everyone was doing what they could to help the women get back on their feet.

27th February: Women start removing the debris from the incident. “Now all the women have started removing the sheets (patra) from the debris. We enquired about bamboo sticks. We get 20 sticks for 6000 rupees. I’ll go and get the bamboo sticks” -Raju, VAMP Sangli

The Nagar Palika told the women not to put tin sheets, and to only erect/use bamboo. The women decided instead, to install bamboo and put saris around it to claim ownership.

On the 3rd of March, which is Sex Worker’s Rights Day, the women ate Misal Pav provided by Rahul Misalwale from Balawde, near Karad. Sweets completed the meal as the women rallied together and prepared to rebuild their homes.

Rebuilding Efforts Begin

The community mobilised and brought in patras/tin sheets of 3ftx12ft to make new shelters for the survivors of the fire, and arranged for sheets to cover the sides of the house. Even though the sheets and other building materials were arranged for, putting them together had to be done very fast because of weather conditions becoming cloudy, and the possibility of rain that could affect the tin. At the same time, some community members tried to meet the CO, Ramakant Dalke at his office, but had to come back since he was not available. Within a few days, soil for the inner layering of the floor was brought in as well, and door frames (Chaukath) was installed.

Volunteers went every single day to the corporator’s office to ask about materials for rebuilding and every day, they were met with excuses and reasons about information having reached authorities but no action on ground. They were not able to meet the corporator because the office would keep sending other people to meet the women or have someone tell people who went to meet him a reason for why he is not available to meet with them.

The houses were built exactly like they were before, with the same partitions, varying layouts for different needs.

Meanwhile, the women continued to work in the houses of women whose homes did not burn down until they had spaces of their own.

April 2022: None of the politicians who visited in the first few days after the fire have come back to check on the situation.

The FIR that was filed on the 19th of February 2022 has not been followed up on yet.

The women have moved into their houses, work and cooking have resumed.

“It took one and a half months to get back to routine”

The women are currently working on getting documents re-issued from banks (passbooks), Aadhar cards, ration cards and school/work documents that they lost in the fire.

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National Network of Sex Workers India

NNSW is a national network of sex worker-led organisations and allies committed to promoting the rights of sex workers in India.