There’s a chart of high-tide days pinned to a wall in the drawing room of Kirti Shrivastava’s Khar home.
She has printed it off the meteorological department website and has put it up every year, for 10 years.
“It helps me and my 74-year-old mother stay abreast of imminent flooding,” she says.
On such days, the Shrivastavas watch each downpour with bated breath, to see if the water will enter their home.
“Many Mumbaiites go on vacations in the monsoon. We have to stay and watch over our home,” says the 53-year-old freelance writer.
This is because flooding in the low-lying Jai Bharat Society area sends up to 5 ft of water into their ground-floor house — typically about five times a year.
The response is now a well-practised drill: pack a few clothes and toiletries, wade through the water and head to Shrivastava’s brother’s home in Kalina until the waters subside.
The most recent such incident was during the torrential rains of last month, when the mother and daughter waded through 5 ft of water and headed to Kalina for a week.
They returned to an all-too-familiar scene of filthy floors and walls that would remain damp for a month. “We have to paint after every monsoon,” Shrivastava says.
Across the city, from Santacruz to Sion and Chembur to Khar, there are families that dread the monsoon as the Shrivastavas do. In a city of notorious monsoon flooding and waterlogging, they live in homes that are plush and well-appointed but located in low-lying areas.
A handyman stands in about 2 ft of water in the Khar (West) home of freelance writer Kirti Shrivastava, 53.
As a result, monsoon flooding is not just a question of what shoes to wear; it becomes a question of where to move.
As, each year, the water levels rise on those heavy downpour and high-tide days, these families are forced to leave home, sometimes for a day, sometimes a week.
“Haphazard, unplanned development has resulted in too few outlets for stormwater — and too many people and buildings crammed into low-lying areas that were meant to be kept low density,” says Pankaj Joshi, executive director of the thinktank Urban Design Research Institute.
Instead, the heightening of roads and rampant construction across low-lying areas in Sion, Santacruz, Chembur, Kalina and Khar have effectively turned them into catchment areas, Joshi adds.
Restaurant owner Himanshu Gupta, 36, for instance, has his five-bedroom home in Postal Colony, Chembur, flooded by up to 2 ft of water every monsoon. So, every year, he and his parents, younger brother, sister-in-law and now a seven-month-old nephew scatter and seek shelter with various relatives.
Others, like the Nebhnanis of Sion, have built a mezzanine floor for the monsoon. They move up here each year, along with any furniture or electronics that could be damaged by floodwater.
Still others, like Malcolm Galbano, 33, from Santacruz, shifts with his five brothers, a sister-in-law and a six-year-old niece to their maternal aunt’s home, and has replaced all wooden furniture with glass cabinets and plastic chairs.
Many have not renovated in years; they do not see the point.
No one will buy these homes, so until the municipal corporation fixes its plumbing — and its development plan — they are essentially trapped.
Municipal commissioner Ajoy Mehta promises that short-term and long-term measures are being explored.
“Two new pumping stations are to be installed, in Oshiwara and Mahul, but acquiring the land for both is proving to be a huge problem,” he says. “We have been installing pumping stations and slowly a network is building to drain rainwater out, since that is the best we can do. For instance, the Love Grove and Cleveland Bunder storm water pumping stations have helped better the situation in Tardeo. The other challenge has been cleaning the drains, which are being blocked by plastic waste. Efforts to remedy the situation need to come from both sides — us and the people.”
Going forward, however, similar situations look set to emerge in the fast-developing Mumbai Metropolitan Region, with the more affordable land on the fringes of the city seeing rampant and unplanned development without due attention paid to mean sea water levels or drainage systems, Joshi cautions.
“Major floods are always a threat, in an island city, but it is isolated floods that are becoming an increasing occurrence as a result of the combined factors of unplanned development and climate change,” Joshi adds.
“The flooding problem that Mumbai faces can only be solved if it is taken as seriously as the breakout of a health epidemic. It needs urgent attention.”
A second home for the monsoon?
Suman Hattangadi, 77, and her husband Jayant, 79, have raised their drawing room floor by 8 inches, and put in marble shelves to prevent rotting.
But when it floods — heavy rains and high tides send up to 5 ft of water into the house — they are still forced to move out of their two-bedroom ground-floor home in Saraswat Colony, Santacruz.
Last month, torrential rains sent 2 ft of water into the house and the couple shifted to their nephew’s home on the fourth floor of the same building, with their cat Smokey.
Jayant Hattangadi, 79, seated on a couch in his flooded drawing room in Santacruz as his daughter and a relative look on.
“This year, we bought a fifth-floor flat in Virar, in a planned locality that never floods. We plan to use this house in the monsoon,” says Jayant.
The problems began in the late 1990s, adds retired geophysicist Prashant Mukherjee, who lives in the same housing colony. “Back then, it was a once-in-two-years occurrence. Ever since a bund was built over a nearby nullah and slums came up in the area in 2000, the flooding has become a regular monsoon feature,” he says.
“We are building a pumping station to ease the situation here,” says H Ward assistant engineer Rajesh Yadav.
A messy affair
Every year for a decade, 33-year-old Malcolm Galbano’s one-storey one-bedroom home in the Kolivery gaothan in Santacruz (East), is inundated with about 2 ft of water.
“We have raised the entrance and barricaded it with a marble slab. Even that didn’t help,” he says.
Wooden furniture has been replaced with glass; the drawing room now has plastic chairs. The stinking, stagnant water usually forces the family out into a neighbouring aunt’s home for at least a day. This happens on average five times each monsoon. “Cleaning the house with phenyl has become a ritual with us now,” says Malcolm.
“That is a low-lying area and hence is bound to be flooded,” says H East Ward assistant engineer SK Vajpayee.
Waking up to a flood
Freelance writer Kirti Shrivastava, 53, and her 75-year-old mother, Sudha woke up at midnight on June 19 to find their two-bedroom house in Jai Bharat Society, Khar (West), under 8 inches of water.
In practiced movements, Kirti bundled her best clothes into suitcases, to be stacked on top of the cupboards. Packets of wheat, dal and rice were moved to the tops of kitchen cabinets.
The washing machine was manoeuvred onto the sofa. The chairs, coffee table and mattresses were piled one on the other. “We switched off the mains and thought we would wait it out, but then the water started rising,” says Kirti.
When it had risen to 1 ft, the two women waded to their car and headed for Kirti’s brother’s house in Kalina. Over the next two days, Kirti went back and forth, checking on her home, clearing silt from the floors.
Kirti has had the flat insured for flooding, and gets about a tenth of the estimated damages reimbursed.
“We plan to build a new drain here. This should ease flooding,” says H Ward assistant engineer Rajesh Yadav.
Building a mezzanine floor to stay dry
Vira Nebhnani, 83, has tiles instead of plaster on the walls of her drawing room in New Sion Co-Operative Housing Society.
She, her brother Anoo and his wife have also added a mezzanine floor to their one-bedroom row house, to offer them refuge when it floods.
“It’s not much — just a few asbestos sheets for a roof, and a little space for a kitchen — but since we have no one else in the world, this is where we come,” says Anoo, 69.
While the lane outside always became waterlogged in the monsoon, and water would sometimes seep into the drawing room, it is over the past decade that the flooding has become a regular annual occurrence, with up to 2 ft of water spreading through the house.
“It has become so severe that five years ago we tiled the walls of the drawing room,” says Vira.
“This area has issues and we will be looking at finding solutions to the waterlogging after October,” says BMC PRO Vijay Khabale.
A family forced apart every year
When her five-bedroom flat began to flood on the night of June 19, homemaker Madhu Gupta, 58, decided she would just pop a sleeping pill and wait it out.
“We see this every year and I don’t like to go to other people’s houses asking for shelter,” says the resident of Postal Colony in Chembur. “The next morning, I woke up to find 2 ft of water lapping at the edge of the mattress.”
When the waters had still not receded on day two, she was forced to shift to a neighbour’s house. She had meanwhile contracted a fungal infection in her leg.
“All the mattresses were damaged this year,” says her husband, Rakesh, a 59-year-old restaurateur. “We have tried everything — even installed a pump — but the house continues to flood. We pump the water out but it finds its way back in. There is nowhere for it to go.”
As a result, every monsoon, the family scatters. Rakesh moves to his elder son’s home; his youngest son, daughter-in-law and six-month-old grandson move to her parents’ home. His middle child Himanshu, 36, checks into a hotel.
“None of the doors in our house shuts. They’re all warped by the water. Our wardrobes are on stilts and all the storage space under our box beds has been emptied out and the boxes dismantled because they would just fill with water and rot,” Madhu says.
“Two to three years ago, our floor cracked. We’re now waiting for our building to be redeveloped. Half the row houses here have been redeveloped. Ours is yet to be,” Rakesh adds.
“We are aware of the problem Postal Colony has been facing,” says M West Ward assistant municipal commissioner Harshad Kale. “The BMC has proposed a plan to widen a nullah here, but we are yet to hear from the state Public Works Department on a deadline.”
‘Flooding is a result of unintelligent planning’
~ Pankaj Joshi, executive director of the thinktank Urban Design Research Institute
The problem of homes flooding and becoming waterlogged in low-lying areas of the city has been getting worse over the past few years. Why is this?
The city essentially has too many buildings in low-lying areas that are flood-prone and by default should have been kept low-density. These are natural catchment areas for rain and not only have they been developed but, over the years, open spaces here have also been encroached upon, leaving no space for run-off of stormwater.
What role can the BMC play in such a scenario?
The BMC is gradually developing a stormwater drainage network, but at the same time, the larger picture of climate change must also be kept in mind. As the fact-finding committee report of 2006 reported after the 2005 floods, the situation will just get worse with the gap between such disasters reducing from a decade to just a couple of years.
One immediate solution is to put some of the flood-prone buildings on stilts. But essentially, the flooding is a snowballing effect of unintelligent planning of the city.
What elements of town planning could begin to address this problem going forward?
While contour mapping, open spaces and de-concretisation of compounds is a must, we need to create and protect permeable spaces in the city so that stormwater has some run-off area. Rainwater harvesting by societies would also reduce the impact of stormwater movement. In the long-term, citizens need to show more civic sense. This year, the Irla pumping station was clogged because of a sofa. The floods needs to be taken as seriously as the breakout of an epidemic.
ACT FAST, CHITALE COMMITTEE HAD SAID in 2006
In 2005, the state government appointed a fact-finding committee to investigate the causes of the July 26 flooding of that year, which destroyed crores worth of property and claimed more than 500 lives. The committee was also asked to propose short-term and long-term solutions. The eight-member committee was led by Madhavrao Chitale, former secretary with the ministry of water resources, and submitted its report in 2006.
The Chitale Committee report found that development in low-lying areas had erased floodable areas such as marshlands and natural depressions. This meant that localities where stormwater had been naturally draining into these depressions became flooding spots.
An ideal example, the report stated, was the Postal Colony area in Chembur, which became flood-prone due to development in the adjoining areas, starting with reclamations by MHADA in 1947-48, then the construction of the Eastern Express Highway in 1963 and later developments on the east side of the EEH.
As a solution, the report had recommended that new Development Control Regulations be drawn up for the city after careful study of the problem, taking into account land contours and the likely extent of flooding, within the next three years.