Rain fury takes heavy toll on Mumbai again
Thirty one people died and 79 others were injured in Mumbai on Tuesday as the heaviest single-day rainfall in 14 years pounded India’s financial capital, inundating its rail and road network, crippling air traffic, and battering its notoriously poor infrastructure in an amplified version of the city’s annual struggle with rain.
Between Monday and Tuesday mornings, the coastal city recorded 375.2 mm of rain, the second-highest 24-hour rainfall in July since 1975 that forced the India Meteorological Department (IMD) to admit that it had got the forecast wrong. The highest rainfall, 944mm, fell on July 26, 2005, when more than 1,000 people died in a deluge that is ominously referred to as “26/7”.
The torrential showers brought the wall of a government-owned reservoir crashing on slums built on a hill slope in the suburb of Malad late on Monday night, killing 22 people. Two people suffocated to death inside their car that got stranded in a flooded subway, also in Malad. A security guard died in Mulund after the wall of a neighbouring building collapsed on him in the middle of the night. Another wall collapse in Kalyan killed three. Three people were electrocuted to death because of short-circuits on Tuesday morning.
With weathermen saying the downpour will not let up in the next two days, local authorities called in the Navy, who deployed rubber boats to rescue about 1,600 people in low-lying areas of the city. Municipal authorities also evacuated 100 families in Chandivali after a 300-metre-long stretch of a road caved in. The government declared a public holiday in the city and ordered schools shut, asking people to avoid stepping out of their houses. “We need to remain alert for next two days,” said chief minister Devendra Fadnavis.
The showers flooded railway tracks, forcing the city’s lifelines of Central and Harbour railway networks to shut down for 16 hours, disrupting the daily commutes of millions. Visuals showed cars and buses submerged as people waded through waist- or chest-deep water. Chaos reigned at the airport, where 133 flights were cancelled and another 350 delayed or diverted after a passenger jet skidded off its main runway and got stuck in the mud on Monday night. Airport authorities announced that it may take 48 hours to haul the jet out of the mud, and restore normal operations.
“On Monday, we had issued rainfall warning of heavy to very heavy rain in some areas, but it was not anticipated that extremely heavy rain would occur,” said KS Hosalikar, deputy director general, western region, IMD. “This happened due to a cloud patch over the Mumbai suburbs with maximum rain intensity over Santacruz that led to continuous extremely heavy showers for six hours straight.”
Across the city, water logging was reported at 53 spots, according to the civic officials. “The disaster management helpline set up at the municipal corporation headquarters received 3593 complaints within 12 hours between 10 pm on Monday, and 10 am on Tuesday, regarding water logging, tree collapse incidents, and short circuits,” said additional municipal commissioner Ashwini Joshi.
Flooding has become an annual fixture in Mumbai during the monsoon as reckless construction and garbage-clogged drains and waterways make the city increasingly vulnerable to heavy downpour. A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), tabled in the assembly on Tuesday, also pointed out major deficiencies in the existing flood-risk management system. The report pointed out that the state has not updated its disaster management plan since 2016, the capacity of city drains was adequate only for rainfall of 25mm per hour, and that numerous obstructions along with poor structural conditions were preventing drains from functioning properly.
But the municipal authorities said work was being done on a war footing, and that little could be done in case of extremely heavy rainfall. They claimed that water levels had started receding within an hour of work beginning on Tuesday with the help of 1,400 dewatering pumps stationed across the city. The total water discharged from pumps into the sea stood at 13,694 million litres, nearly equal to the storage capacity of the Tulsi and Vihar lakes that provide drinking water to the city. Joshi also claimed that six of the eight pumping stations, planned under an action plan put in place after the 2005 flooding, were operational on Tuesday.
Fadnavis announced a high-level probe into the Malad wall collapse and said that strict action will be taken against officials responsible for not only the collapse but also for other such accidents and the delayed cleaning of stormwater drains. But the Opposition slammed the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) – the country’s richest municipal body -- for alleged irregularities in the drain-cleaning work and delay in construction of pumping stations. The Nationalist Congress Party’s (NCP) legislative party leader, Ajit Pawar, demanded a high-level probe into the BMC’s alleged misgovernance. “If the need arises, please appoint an administrator for civic body by dissolving it,” he said.
But the Shiv Sena, which controls BMC, defended the city authorities with party leader Sanjay Raut saying the wall collapse was an accident and not a failure of the civic body. Aaditya Thackeray, chief of the party’s youth wing, said any city would “crumble” under 400mm rainfall. The Sena also blamed the media in an editorial in party mouthpiece Saamana. “During heavy rain, the 24x7 media rush to the usual low-lying spots and cry hoarse. The media will never show how BMC workers work to remove the accumulated water during the monsoon,” the editorial said.
Experts said the city’s new development plan (DP) 2034 made it clear that authorities had learnt no lessons from previous disasters.
“Most coastal cities maintain flood plains. Mumbai’s DP does not even demarcate flood plains. Instead of maintaining these as no go areas of mangroves, wetlands and salt pan lands, we have constructed on them and plan to open them further. The BMC’s entire exercise of augmenting drains is an exercise in futility. Augmenting capacity of drains will work in cities with higher elevation and not for Mumbai, a city below sea level,’’ said Stalin D, an environmentalist.