IU Impact: Citizen Journalist Brings Change to Derelict Graveyard

On 18th January 2012, IndiaUnheard published Community Correspondent Amol Lalzare's video 'From Death to Dereliction’ which put the spotlight on a cemetery in Mumbai that languished among pathetic conditions. Visitors to Graveyard complained of the discomfort caused by the lack of drinking water and basic hygiene. Bones and skulls were strewn across the grounds. It was disrespect to the dead. Amol took on the responsibility of getting the cemetery back in order. IIt was his community’s struggle and he would make it his own….. 

A Matter of Faith

When asked if he is religious, Amol maintains that he is a man of faith. He says that the sanctity of a grave is more than a religious matter. It is a matter of sentiment, of remembrance, of memories, of a life lived and it is a form of catharsis for those that are left behind. 

“How would you feel if the fondest memories of your loved one are laid to waste and desecrated? How would you feel if you saw the skull and bones of the dearly departed littered on the ground?” asks Amol, “You are never more vulnerable than when you are in the company of death. At that moment, you feel as if your very beliefs and your faith are being violated.” 

Amol Lalzare is a true-blue Mumbai lad, born and raised in the stacked and compressed urban sprawl of the Sathe Nagar Slums in Chembur. He’s only in his early twenties but he’s already earned the credentials of a veteran video activist. He started out in his late teens as a member of a Community Video Unit that worked out of his own slum. He represented the issues and concerns of his people even as he lived them. He’s plied an auto-rickshaw on the streets of Mumbai, worked as the local cable guy and as an occasional waiter for caterers who do weddings and other functions. He assists Bollywood crews at Film City, Mumbai with lighting and camera and is proud to declare that everything he learnt, he learnt ‘on the job’. He’s happy to pay the bills and he appreciates change in his pocket. Times are difficult and then they get easy and he doesn’t always know how it might go. But every Sunday, for as long as he remembers, Amol Lalzare wakes up a devout Christian. 

As he attends the congregation at Mount Mary Church which sits along the waves hitting Mumbai’s rocky and expansive Bandstand sea face, he finds a value stir and form deep inside him. A value that he calls ‘belief’ and ‘faith’. It is something he carries with him throughout the week, through the hard and rough and the easy and smooth. He says it is something fundamental and human. Others may find it elsewhere but he finds it every Sunday at Mount Mary. 

It is this essential feeling that he feels was disrespected by the state of the graveyard. 

The Video That Hurt

Amol interviewed the congregation at the Ambroli church and the visitors to the graveyard. He made it a point to meticulously document the shambles the graveyard was in. “I was clear that I wanted to make a video that hurt the people who saw it. I wanted people to be appalled by it the very same way that I was when I entered the cemetery.” 

Amol got his footage edited into a powerful video which was published on the IndiaUnheard website on 18th January 2012. With the video, the full support of his community and with ‘faith’ and ‘belief’, Amol began his efforts to get the attention of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation authorities who were in charge of the cemeteries. 

He made not less than twelve trips as he tried to negotiate his way through the red tape and reach the concerned authorities. Says Amol,” I never thought bringing change was easy but negotiating the bureaucracy is whole other ball game. I was being passed along from office to office, from one table to another.  I began to feel like I am a government file that is regarded between sips of tea and then passed along. My soul and my sole, both began to wear out. I knew that all I had to find was one sympathetic ear and show that person my video. If you ask me how I did it, I really don’t know. But somehow I continued to persevere.” 

Then one day, by the stroke of immense luck, in all the passing around, Amol landed in the right place at the right time – in an audience with Municipal Councilor, Mr. Vithal Lokre. Amol spoke to him about the issue and played him the video. “And it did hurt.” 

R.I.P

Mr. Lokre announced that he would take a personal interest in the case. Within minutes of seeing the video, he made a phone call to the concerned department. “The state of the cemetery was unacceptable. There had to be change.” 

Within two weeks of the call, the BMC had already released the funds. New pipes were brought in and laid. The long dead water taps of the cemetery came back to life. Meanwhile, the church authorities also came together and got shelves built for the stray unearthed bones. They ensured that the premises were cleaned, the broken structures repaired. Finally it looked like the once unruly cemetery now rested in peace. 

For Amol, who was close to a point of disillusion, it was a return of faith to see the state machinery in smooth, seamless action. 

The Politics of Change

Amol became the local hero. Mr. Lokre and him, the official and the videoactivist were both felicitated by the members of the church in a small function. Churchgoers expressed their immense gratitude. 

A big poster was put up next to the cemetery by the local politicians trying to politicize the situation and squirrel some credit into their pockets. They asked Amol for a photograph that they could use on the poster. Amol refused. Instead they put his name up in big, bold letters that he’s been trying to distance himself from eversince.

“The way I see it, most people go through hell trying to live their lives. And some people say that when their lives expire, most people go to hell. So the grave is only place where a person can be in peace. And that is worth fighting for.” 

Amol takes pride in the fact that he managed to help out his community. He takes comfort in that visitors to the graveyard and the graves themselves are able to avail of a respect and solace. He fought for the very ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ that runs through him. And the struggle reaffirmed the value of something he always had inside of him. That, Amol says, is what he gained. 

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