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11 years after 26/7, food for thought

mumbai Updated: Jul 22, 2016 00:26 IST
Ayaz Memon
Mumbai floods

Mumbai Monsoon Floods - Taffic gets standstill following heavy rains on Tuesday, at Mahim causeway on Wednesday. (12.15pm). Thousands of people were stranded in their offices, railway stations, trains, buses and even schools following incessant rains. HT Photo by Vijayanand Gupta. 27/07/05 (HT)

The Hall Of Culture at Worli’s Nehru Centre was overflowing with people on Wednesday evening for the release of Amitav Ghosh’ new book, The Great Derangement: hardly unusual given the author’s stature, and yet pleasantly surprising given the circumstances.

That so many turned up despite the incessant rain and a massive traffic jam caused by an accident on Annie Besant Road shows a yearning for cultural events that is not entirely met in Mumbai, I would like to believe.

Yet it was the presence --- apart from culture-vultures, some well-known activists (including from Bollywood) , a sprinkling of the literati, and regular air-kissing event-goers – of many eager-beaver youngsters which was telling.

Ghosh’s latest book is about climate change and its consequences: a “dry” subject, which many of us would believe people of a certain age group (or not!) would hardly be interested in. Clearly such stereotyping is puerile and flawed.

Speaking to some of the youngsters at the event, they seemed better informed about climate change, and also more concerned. As inheritors of a future that is being shaped by others, they must be.

I don’t know whether it was inadvertent or deliberate that the release of this book virtually coincided with the 11th anniversary of the 26/7 storm. Either way, it was a timely reminder of the havoc climate change can cause, and why disaster planning for such acts of nature is imperative.

The 26/7 cyclone finds stellar place in The Great Derangement as a case study. Ghosh lives in Goa but is a frequent visitor to Mumbai and understands its ethos, strengths and weaknesses well.

Moreover, what can explain better the calamitous effect of climate change than a seemingly hardy, relatively well-to-do modern megacity of approximately 20 million people brought to its knees?

For the record, Mumbai experienced 944mm of rain on July 26, 2005. Several parts of the city were submerged under water for some days after. The cyclone took a heavy toll of life (500 reportedly died) and the exact figure of loss to property, business and other assets is still unknown.

For Mumbaikars, those were perhaps the most harrowing few days of their existence. Apart from the dead, many lives were shattered, or drastically altered.

The real issue, however, isn’t as innocuous as just non-stop rain; rather, it lies in understanding weather patterns, the environment and coping with challenges they throw up, as we pursue rapid urbanisation as those who study such phenomena warn us.

So, we come to the moot question.

How has Mumbai fared post 26/7? Despite that debilitating experience, dismally by all accounts, I’m afraid. There was a flood of promises after the deluge to build up a multi-pronged disaster management plan, but 11 years later, most of this remains on paper.

In fact, instead of the situation improving, instances of flooding have increased with each passing year, often after even modest rain, which shows the cavalier ignorance and/or indifference of authorities empowered to manage Mumbai.

Much has been written in this column about the muck that clogs Mumbai’s drains, the deteriorating sewage system, and rampant real-estate development without adequate safeguards to ensure the city doesn’t choke to bear repetition.

I won’t labour the point further. Instead, I’ll take this brief extract from Ghosh’s book to highlight the perils that Mumbai faces in a repeat of a 26/7-like situation.

He writes: “A distance of about 4 kilometres separates south Mumbai’s two sea-facing shorelines. Situated on the east side are the city’s port facilities, the legendary Taj Mahal Hotel, and the plaza of the Gateway of India, which is increasingly prone to flooding. Beyond lies a much-used fishing port: any vessels that had not been moved to safe locations would be seized by the storm surge and swept towards the Gateway of India and the Taj Hotel.

“At this point waves would be pouring into south Mumbai from both its sea-facing shorelines; it is not inconceivable that the two fronts of the storm would meet and merge. In that case the hills and promontories of south Mumbai would once be islands, rising out of a wildly agitated expanse of water.’’

Apoplectic or food for thought?