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Tuesday, Aug 20, 2019

In denial: Maharashtra government missed the big picture as Mumbai floods worsened

The first mistake, a BJP minister admitted on Wednesday, was to not take the Mumbai weather forecast seriously

mumbai Updated: Aug 31, 2017 10:29 IST
Ketaki Ghoge
Ketaki Ghoge
Hindustan Times
A tree fell in Matunga on Wednesday.
A tree fell in Matunga on Wednesday.(Pratik Chorge/HT)

The state government’s response to the tragedy on Tuesday is a tale of missed opportunities and miscommunication. As heavy rain pounded Mumbai and the local train services, the city’s lifeline, were shutting down, the state cabinet was actually meeting at Mantralaya.

At the meeting that ended around noon, the ministers discussed sowing operations and the overall rain scenario in the state, besides other subjects. But not the crisis developing in Mumbai. Didn’t they know what was happening or didn’t they care? Why did no one bring up the weather bureau’s warning that up to 200 mm rain could fall on Tuesday.

Half an hour later, services on all three suburban lines were suspended with water logging on the tracks at Sion, Kurla and Bandra. Lakhs of commuters, up to 30 lakh, suddenly had no way to go home. So what did the state machinery do? It went into denial.

At 2 pm on Tuesday, state disaster control officials told HT that the situation was not dire and that “only the traffic and transport services have been badly hit”.’ The fact that if the Railways could not restart their operations, 20 to 30 lakh commuters would be stranded was not considered.

The first mistake, a BJP minister admitted on Wednesday, was to not take the weather forecast seriously. “We know that the city has low lying areas and trains will stop if it rains more than 80 mm. So unless we set up better systems, we need to take the weather forecast more seriously. That’s the learning,’’ said the minister.

But there were several more mistakes. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis decided to visit the state disaster control room only at 3 pm and the state’s eight-point advisory - asking people to stay safe wherever they were, avoid walking on flooded roads, etc - came at 8 pm when lakhs of citizens were already trudging along flooded tracks and roads, desperate to get home.

Why couldn’t this list have been sent out hours earlier, soon after the trains stopped. Surely announcements could have been made at the train stations? But then the various wings of the government have to work together, not blame each other as the railways, the BMC and the state government were doing.

The state government should have called in NGOs and community groups to ensure arrangements were made across the city for stranded people to take shelter. Instead, it was left to good samaritans across the city to step in on their own.

There was a National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) team on alert since the afternoon, but the state didn’t involve it and instead relied solely on the Fire Brigade.

“We held meetings through the day to co-ordinate the situation. The IMD forecasts were handed out to the district level and civic disaster control rooms. They are directly responsible for overseeing such situations. The Railway officials were also in touch with us. It was expected that trains would start slowly but that didn’t happen,’’ said Rajiv Nivatkar, director of the state disaster management cell.

Another official questioned, “How could we have given an advisory asking people to stay at home on the basis of a forecast of very heavy rainfall ?’’

What does one say to such people? By Wednesday, as the city found its feet again, Tuesday’s horrors were dismissed by the state and civic authorities as a “once in ten years event”, where nothing could have been done by state agencies.

First Published: Aug 31, 2017 10:28 IST

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