Dickensian times

There has been a horrific fire in London. On Tuesday night, many of the 200 residents of Grenfell Tower in North Kensington went to sleep believing themselves to be safe and sound at home. Many sadly will never wake again.

As the emergency services comb through twenty four charred floors of the building, family and friends anxiously await news of their loved ones, many still unaccounted for. In the few days since the tragedy, details have emerged of grave safety concerns raised by residents to the authorities and the building’s management companies, dating as far back to 2012. To make matters worse, these concerns had evidently not been addressed by the £10 million regeneration the building underwent last year.

There are accusations that these fatal transgressions would not have happened if the building’s residents were not “poor and working class”. That this is a multifaceted and complex incident directly and indirectly caused or exacerbated by a growing divide between those who have been lucky enough to be born or move into the right circumstances, and those who are not.

The UK is the most unequal country in Europe (excluding Russia), and London is the most unequal region of all. At present, this inequality manifests itself in the form of increasing privatisation of education, increasing prevalence of grammar schools, poor employment prospects for young people, pessimism over social mobility and increasing number of people needing to access food bank services, factors that will perpetuate and intensify the situation in years to come.

I frequently hear the phrase, “Oh, that’s London for you” whenever I bring up the inequality I see with my own eyes: the tower blocks next to the mansion blocks, homelessness in a wealthy financial hub, people with paying jobs struggling to feed their families whilst living right next to the privileged in multimillion-pound houses. I didn’t do much about it before. I have even uttered that phrase many times myself.

This incident isn’t the first to expose the ugly side of London that many visitors and residents do not see and that some of us find easier and less harrowing to ignore in the longer term. In 2011, young people in some of the most unequal and deprived areas of London rioted. I remember now that I mainly felt inconvenienced back then and didn’t stop to think too deeply about what was behind the implacable anger that led those rioting to commit physical violence and destruction (I am human after all and my social conscience was asleep then).

Living in India changed all that. I became acutely aware of my privileged position in global society. I happened to live a comfortable, sheltered life because I was lucky and blessed enough to be born into and to live under those fortunate circumstances.

Things must change and the political landscape is shifting slowly. In 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union by a slim majority and in the recent General Election, an upsurge of support for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party lost the ruling Conservative Party their majority in Parliament. All signs that people are railing against past injustices, whether real or perceived.

But we leave so much to our governments to change the status quo, to fight for the progress and protection of our fellow citizens, to do what is best for us. Once we vote and exercise our democratic right, we tend to sit back and let politics take over. Sometimes we donate money to worthy charitable causes, making ourselves feel better through our yearly tax-deductible GiftAid-ed donations.

I returned to London this year, saddened by the devastation caused by the prevailing global model of linear growth at any cost. I have been fortunate to have some free time on my hands. Many have asked what I do with my time. I have been donating it. I have become quite adept at writing to my local MP about issues close to my heart and tweeting at companies who I think need to do better in the environmental, social and economic stakes.

I can still do more. We must all do more. Give money. Give time. Get out into your community. Buy the person sleeping rough outside your home or office a sandwich. Above all, start becoming more aware.

Because whilst many of us are ok, there are many us who are not. Because earning or having less in London shouldn’t mean that you are more likely to die in a fire. In your own home.

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