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Is Mumbai ready for another deluge?

With monsoon barely two weeks away, residents of this metropolis have more than one reason to be jittery.

india Updated: May 27, 2006 12:30 IST

With the monsoon barely two weeks away and memories of last year's inundation still fresh, residents of this bustling metropolis have more than one reason to be jittery. But the authorities insist they are prepared.

Notwithstanding the assurances, there is one thought on everyone's mind: Is Mumbai ready to tackle another flood like the one on July 26 last year when 944 mm of rain lashed the city, leading to civic services going for a toss and thousands being marooned in offices, schools, homes and on the streets.

For most residents, the answer seems to be a firm no.

The 26/7 experience and two weeks of rains that flooded large parts of Maharashtra and killed at least 1,000 people across the state were a testing time for the disaster management plan of Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh's government.

Unfortunately, it just sank without a trace.

Having learnt bitter lessons and keen to avoid another 26/7, Mumbai's civic authorities, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), say they have initiated a series of disaster management measures this year.

BMC disaster management in-charge and additional commissioner Srikanth Singh said: "The BMC will spend Rs 1 billion ($21.7 million) on pre-monsoon preparation work which will comprise six search and rescue (SAR) teams armed with inflatable rubber speed boats and 12 kayaks in the Karla, Santa Cruz, Bandra, Borivli, Marol, Dharavi and Byculla fire stations. People will not be marooned in low-lying areas as it happened earlier."

But Bombay First, an NGO that advocates public awareness of the city's problems, is sceptical about the government's preparedness and whether it can meet the May 31 deadline to complete disaster management measures.

"Road repairs, construction works are still pending. The flood-prone, pot-holed Western Expressway is being filed with tar, which will be washed away by the rains. Both the MMRDA and BMC have reduced the carriageways during concretisation," said Bombay First project officer Sonia Fernandez.

"The failure of the government to implement the ban on the use of plastic bags has added to the problem with a majority of the city's drains already clogged. The six SAR teams will be inadequate in tackling situations faced by the city," Fernandez said.

Pointing out that the city authorities had no choppers at their disposal, she added: "Air support is an integral part of any search and rescue operation. It is sad that the government is yet to procure a helicopter. Maybe it will wake up only after another deluge hits the city."

She claimed the government's disaster management plan "existed only on paper".

"Heavy rains and high tide last year damaged the mangrove wetlands on the city's outskirts. Silt removed from the Methi river has been dumped in the wetlands. The silt accumulated in the mangrove wetlands will be washed back into the river and cause more flooding."

Besides, toxic silt dumped in the wastelands will kill the mangrove, Fernandez added.

Singh disagreed.

"The breakdown of the communication system was our main dilemma during last year's deluge. We have learnt the lessons and are taking corrective measures. If a similar disaster hits the city, we will manage it through a systematic exercise," Singh said.

"Besides the BMC, the MMRDA has taken up de-siltation and widening work of the Methi river. The Mumbai fire brigade has also commissioned six new fire stations, having on its rolls some 90 swimmers and 500 cadets. The six SAR teams will be deployed at these stations."

Last year's deluge had caught the fire brigade department unprepared. The flood left its vehicles and personnel stranded and unable to help people trapped by encircling waters at the Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC) and Kalian -- the worst hit areas in the city.