Given Mumbai’s long relationship with rains and flooding, desilting of drains or nullahs should have been an elementary and routine pre-monsoon task. Yet, every year, it turns so unpredictable, messy and fraught with political tensions that it exhausts and infuriates people.
This year too, desilting of Mumbai’s major nullahs got off to a late start. But, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation claimed that 48% of the work had been completed by the first week of May. Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, who inspected the work, claimed that it was progressing well, but 100% desilting would not be possible. BJP’s city chief Ashish Shelar, who independently inspected the work, said he was 100% dissatisfied with it.
Moreover, the handful of contractors who desilt hundreds of minor nullahs across Mumbai did not respond to the BMC’s tenders. The civic body then farmed out the work to labourers from assorted NGOs on a ward-to-ward basis. Were all of them competent enough? Did they have the requisite tools? Did they work according to a standard operating procedure approved by the BMC? These are questions that citizens have, but there’s little the BMC can do.
Contractors stayed away from tenders because they were upset at the action taken against some of them after the desilting scam was unearthed in 2015. It had revealed a loss of Rs35 crore to Rs40 crore for the civic exchequer owing to their malpractices. Municipal commissioner Ajoy Mehta had cracked the whip on a few civic officials and contractors.
When drains are desilted, the silt has to be disposed off at designated places. For this too, local contractors did not respond to tenders. This forced the administration to go easy on the terms and conditions for the job and invite contractors from outside the city, according to reports. These contractors will now not have BMC officials check the amount of silt they pick up, they will not work with the vehicle tracking system that the BMC proposed, and will not always heed environmental regulations while disposing of the silt.
If this sounds like the rule of the contractor raj, then it is. As with road and pothole repairs, contractors who were caught committing fraud with sub-standard work and inflated bills to the BMC, the desilting work — so integral to avoid floods and water-logging during the monsoon — is also controlled and determined by a handful of contractors allegedly hand-in-glove with a few officials and with links to some corporators.
The BMC has fined contractors for shoddy work in the past, but it still continues. Snaring the errant contractors and breaking the contractors’ control of the process is a vital aspect of cleaning up the BMC, as well as streamlining work in the city. Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, who’s given to lofty talk about urban governance, understands the nexus and claims he wants it finished. But his objective has a subtext: He seeks to ensnare Thackeray or people close to him to score political points.
Whether Mumbai’s drains get thoroughly cleaned or not, the desilting work is now a political football between two political frenemies trying to outdo each other. Should Mumbai get flooded this monsoon, there’s always force majeure to blame. Does the BJP intend to end the contractor raj? Do not take bets.