By Pankti Mehta Kadakia
RA Rajeev, then the additional municipal commissioner – city, was watching a cricket match with his seven-year-old son over dinner, back home from work. India had won against England by six wickets — but the celebration was cut short soon after.
Rajeev switched to the news to find mayhem at Leopold Café in Colaba – a witness was shouting about firing going on. Over the next few minutes, the situation spread to CST station and the area around. Rajeev called the BMC garage to send him a car, should he have to return to the office.
“I called the municipal commissioner and said we should go to the control room, but he responded saying it was the police’s job, not ours. I kept quiet. Then he called back a few minutes later saying the deputy chief minister had asked us to visit the hospitals,” Rajeev recalls. “We didn’t have any security like the police did, and he sounded scared.”
Rajeev had heard the sound of gunshots coming from the Marine Drive area at his Malabar Hill home. Instead of taking the regular route to the BMC headquarters, they took the inside track, via Opera House.
“Our car, even though it had the lal batti, was stopped twice by the police to check. We told them we were the commissioner and additional commissioner of the BMC, and they apologised, saying they had to check because a police car had been hijacked,” he says.
Rajeev spent the next three nights managing the control room, which was responsible for coordinating with the fire brigades and some government hospitals, including Nair Hospital.
“I was asked to go home around 2 am the first night, because it seemed like more of a security case,” he says. “Standing at the gate of the BMC headquarters, when incidents had taken place at CST, Cama Hospital, a few yards away, for the first time that night, I was scared. But my intuition wouldn’t let me leave. We were all working against an enemy whose strength was unknown. Fighting against uncertainty.”
Rajeev worked around the clock along with the team at the control room to make sure enough fire engines were deployed, that they were being replenished in time, following instructions. Deans of hospitals had to be called in to work, and more doctors arranged for.
“At one point, the army told us not to douse the fire, because the priority was to finish the terrorists,” he says. “The fire operations were hampering their hunt, and the terrorists would throw more grenades, cause more fires once the flames were put out.”
He also received information trapped in a room were also Taj Hotel general manager Karambir Kang’s family. “We couldn’t send a fire brigade to rescue them, as the terrorists were throwing hand grenades from that tower,” he says, tearing up. “It is terribly unfortunate that Kang had to lose his wife and children.”
The BMC staff worked relentlessly, extraordinarily, says Rajeev. Even though he was never asked to man the control room — disaster management was not his portfolio or area of expertise — he felt a responsibility to those in distress, and wanted no complaints against the BMC.
“Since then, the machinery has become administratively stronger with post-disaster management,” he says. “But to prevent a disaster, every citizen has to pitch in. There are security checks at many places now, but not at Leopold Café, not at railway stations. Mumbai is a hard beast to control, and everyone needs to do their bit.”
When the siege finally ended, Rajeev returned home, shaken, emotional. “I don’t think I have done a lot, in fact, I didn’t save a single life. But I wanted to do anything that was possible to help the situation. I couldn’t sleep for days after the attacks, and I still get goosebumps when I think of them. It felt like the 160 people that died were from my own family.”