Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray cannot be faulted for not doing his bit. Every year, in the blinding heat of a summer afternoon, he steps out for an annual nullah check. His entourage comprises his son and wannabe politician Aaditya, Mumbai’s municipal commissioner, assorted BMC officials and party leaders. Thackeray “inspects” major nullahs across the city for desilting so that rain water can flow out and declares that Mumbai will not see water-logging in the ensuing monsoon.
Mumbaiites, of course, do not believe this. The lived experience is that one big downpour brings regular life to a standstill every monsoon. Post the downpour and the inevitable water-logging or flooding, the BMC and Thackerays dole out the usual excuses: old storm water drains, rainfall beyond capacity of drains, rampant construction, other agencies at work over whom the BMC does not have jurisdiction, and so on.
On Tuesday, Thackeray accompanied by Aaditya and municipal commissioner Ajoy Mehta conducted his nullah inspection and claimed that Mumbai will not be water-logged this monsoon. It made for a photo-op, it demonstrated to the party cadre that the boss is involved, but it does not address the core issues around flooding. This newspaper has had independent experts conduct pre-monsoon surveys to check the preparedness of the city every year. Their verdict has generally been: not thoroughly prepared or not at all prepared.
By only desilting drains, hurriedly wrapping up road repair work, and suchlike, Thackeray and the BMC might just be missing the wood for the trees. These are necessary pre-monsoon tasks but by focussing on specific small tasks, they may not be seeing the larger picture. And this is to have Mumbai rain-ready in every aspect, have Mumbai prepared for an urban flood.
While it is true that Mumbai is not the only city in the world to come to a standstill with heavy rain, the city could do with a well-thought-through comprehensive urban flood management system or protocol. It needs one.
This would plan for varying intensities of rainfall in different areas of the city; introduce regulations and measures (such as building codes and construction norms) to prevent flooding because prevention is less disruptive and cheaper than recovery; evolve systematic and cost-effective rain water management strategies on all transit lines including highways, railways, arterial roads, internal roads and public places such as gardens and parks; establish and secure information pathways so that Mumbaiites can access the latest updates on flooding and transport on a particularly bad rain day.
The comprehensive approach would also include ways to ensure that a percentage of new construction is left free of cement concrete and concreted stretches are opened up for rain water to soak in; storm water drains are augmented; the garbage collection and disposal system functions at peak capacity throughout the monsoon; encroachments of all kinds are removed and relocated; rain-water harvesting on rooftops becomes the standard rather than the exception even in older buildings; introduction of incentives and use of financial instruments. And much more.
If Thackeray begins now and the BMC cranks up, Mumbai may be somewhat rain-ready or urban flood-ready for 2018. It is not an afternoon’s outing. A comprehensive rain-ready plan would need not only the BMC’s best administrators but also Mumbai’s distinguished urban planners, environmentalists, engineers and disaster management experts.
If such a plan is put in place, Thackeray would have done his beloved city a good deed indeed. Meanwhile, this year, it would be great if he can ensure that the silt dragged out of nullahs is carried away lest the first rain shoves it right back in and chokes the city.