There are two things that the Mumbai monsoon absolutely guarantees the denizens of this great metropolis in the first fortnight itself.
After an oppressive, humid summer, everybody is looking for relief and the first week of showers fill us with undiluted joy. By the second week road in the city will take such a beating that citizens are left weeping.
For those who have lived in Mumbai long enough, this is hardly new; for those who are new, there is good reason to come to terms quickly so as not to suffer a breakdown.
Talking of breakdowns, I am reminded of the experiences of a scribe from overseas. Beguiled by Mumbai’s cosmopolitanism, its work ethic and the mind-my-own-business ethos that allows you enough space and privacy, he quickly got to love the city.
Since he had heard so much about the rainy season, he couldn’t wait for the first showers. Then the monsoon settled in, drainages started getting clogged, roads started to melt away, as it were, and life took on an unanticipated hellish dimension.
His worst time was when his car got stuck in a massive pothole somewhere between Grant Road and Bombay Central. It took him some hours to extricate the car, which then demanded repairs worth some thousands of rupees.
“It wasn’t the money, but the frustration of finding yourself helpless for no good reason,’’ he said later. For the next few years he was stationed in Mumbai, the scribe made his annual vacation coincide with the monsoon as much as possible.
“I don’t see this is a problem of potholes,’’ he said once. “It’s actually a black hole of indifference because people don’t mind it.’’ This might mock our sensitivities and pride, but it is also profound.
How and why should potholes recur every year otherwise?
Some of the richest businessmen, among the most influential politicians, the biggest film stars, the greatest sportspersons, powerful media personalities — apart, of course, from 15 million other people — live in Mumbai.
Everybody seems to have accepted the hopelessness with a sense of déjà vu, rather than take up cudgels, make a noise, stir things up, get the authorities to be diligent and accountable.
A headline in this newspaper’s Thursday edition screamed that Rs11,000 crore has been paid over five years for roads — making and maintenance — in Mumbai. That’s a mindboggling amount for a job done terribly.
That is public money, mind you. But it is also public silence that has allowed the problem to fester and become gargantuan. In this situation, a glimmer of hope arises in the recent crackdown on contractors, but only if citizens refuse to take things lying down any longer.
The scam appears to be spread fairly and evenly across the city. The police have found that the worst damage has been to the western suburbs and the city, where crores of rupees worth work has been claimed but not done.
Arrests have been made and so have promises and sadly, we have heard all of them before. We had a few years ago the piquant situation where almost every contractor in the Mumbai area had been blacklisted for shoddy work.
We know what the excuses are too; that the rain takes a heavy toll, that the time frame in which roads can be repaired is tiny and that Mumbai traffic is endless etc.
We also know the truth, which is that money is made hand over fist at just about every official and political level. Roads where VIPs usage is high are usually better off and everyone else can fend for themselves.
Is a Rs350-crore scam sufficient for some real action or is the amount just small change in today’s world where tomatoes can cost Rs100 a kg in a snap of some trader’s fingers you might ask?
It’s a start. But for this to be sustained, it is the people who have to get involved too. The message has to go to the city’s administration that passing the buck and shirking responsibility is no longer acceptable.
If we get out of our own black hole of apathy, potholes have no chance to survive.