For many Mumbaiites, the monsoon is synonymous with Mithi, the river that flows through the heart of the city. On July 26, 2005, the Mithi River overflowed after 994mm of rainfall over a period of 24 hours and left the city submerged, as the administration completely collapsed.
Authorities and citizens feared the worst again on June 19 last year, when sporadic rain brought the water level in the Mithi up to 2.5 metres, precariously close to the river’s 2.7-metre danger mark. Fearing another disaster of epic proportions, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) evacuated people living in slums along the river bank. However, as the rain receded, Mithi too calmed down, much to everyone’s relief.
The primary reason for Mithi River overflowing every time the city witnesses a downpour is the silt and trash that is thrown in it, which obstructs the flow of water.
Unfortunately, nothing much has changed this year, too, as authorities and citizens still haven’t learnt their lessons.
When HT’s expert panel, which assessed the city’s rain preparedness as part of the monsoon audit, visited the Mithi River at Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC), they found floating shrubs and garbage choking the river bed.
“The shrubs are usually seen stuck on the sides. If we can see floating shrubs, it definitely means that the work is incomplete. It will clog the drains and prevent outflow,” said DK Phatak, former engineer with the solid waste management department of BMC, who is one of the members of the panel.
Until May-end, the BMC had claimed to have completed 90% of the desilting work at most nullahs in the city. The budget provision for cleaning major nullahs, measuring around 252km across the city, is Rs110 crore.
However, the perennial problems of encroachment along the nullahs like garbage being dumped in them, broken retaining walls among others continued to be a common sight at several locations. “The problem of encroachment needs immediate attention. The drains get choked because of the garbage thrown by people. They are used like an open dustbin,” said Nikhil Desai, an activist, also a panel member.
But the situation at the nine open drains and nullahs, which the expert panel visited, seemed better than last year. This comes in the backdrop of two major scams being unearthed in the BMC – in the storm water drains department and the roads department – where civic officials and contractors were accused of forgery, dubious intentions and shoddy work.
“The widening work for most nullahs has been completed. The work has also been brought to a safe stage. This should facilitate in some amount of smooth receding of water during monsoon,” said GD Patil, former civic official with the roads department.
However, a lot more needs to be done to ensure a flood-free monsoon – increased rounds of clean-up to clear floating garbage, removing illegal shanties around the nullahs, undertaking more measures to build retaining walls and widening nullahs, said the experts.
Civic officials, meanwhile, continued to defend the work, stating that the only time the city could witness trouble was if there was heavy rain during a high tide. Sanjay Deshmukh, additional municipal commissioner, in-charge of the storm water drains department, said: “The BMC has possibly undertaken all the measures to ensure better desilting work. However, cleanliness is again a collective responsibility.”