HT monsoon audit: Tree falls, open manholes, bad footpaths continue to pose a challenge in Mumbai
In 2016, the then civic commissioner Ajoy Mehta in a press conference said the city’s footpaths were so bad that he couldn’t even take his parents for a walk. The civic commissioner’s public admission led the civic body to draft a pedestrian-first policy. The policy, which states that newly constructed roads must give preference to pedestrians, has not shown desirable results on ground. Not only is taking a walk difficult in maximum city, it can also be fatal during the monsoon.
In July 2017, a former Doordarshan TV anchor, Kanchan Nath, was on her way back home in Chembur from work when a tree branch fell on her. She succumbed to her injuries two days later in hospital. In August the same year, gastroenterologist Dr Deepak Amrapurkar drowned after falling in an open manhole, 100m from home.
The civic body’s data show that these are not freak or rare accidents. In the past five years, from 2013 to 2018, the disaster management cell data (as given to NGO Adhikar Foundation in April 2019) reveals that 406 people died owing to drowning in manholes, nullahs, sea and because of tree falls.
Ahead of this monsoon, the HT audit found little evidence that things had changed for the better for pedestrians.
Plan to avert drowning and tree-fall deaths
To prevent people from falling into open manholes, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) decided to place steel nets over these manholes. The investigation into Dr Amrapurkar’s death found locals had uncovered the manhole lid to speed up the flow of water.
In the 2018-19 budget, after Dr Amrapurkar’s death, the civic body for the first time introduced a separate allocation of ₹1.22 crore for its stormwater drains department to fix nets in the manholes. This amount was to procure and fix 1,450 nets. The BMC claimed it had fixed 1,743 nets in 2018. The following year, the budget doubled to ₹3.12 crores and till now, the civic body has covered 1,308 manholes in the island city and 1,023 manholes in the suburbs. The budget specifically state that the steel nets have to be at a depth of six inches from the road. However, during HT’s audit, it was found that many manholes are still left open. These are usually covered with dried twigs or branches.
Panel expert Nikhil Desai said, “It is dangerous and especially during monsoon, the ward officers and someone should be held responsible in an event of any tragedy. These manholes are kept open sometimes for months. The officers should go around the ward, especially before monsoon, to make sure all manhole covers are proper and shut before monsoon. The covers also have to be in level with the road or footpath so that no one falls.”
Besides drowning, tree falls have also been on the rise. This year, three such incidents have already been reported even before monsoon. On May 19, CK Gopalakrishnan died after a tree fell on her in Andheri (West). On May 28, Ambika Kale, 20, a civic contract labourer died on May 28 in Andheri (East). On May 30, a coconut tree fell in Santacruz (West), blocking Krishna Mission Road.
In June 2018, a 13-year-old girl died when a coconut tree fell on her at Dahisar.
In 2018 alone, six deaths were caused by tree falls.
While the civic body claims it undertakes trimming of trees routinely, experts say the trimming often leads to killing of that tree. Dr Nilesh Baxi, panel expert, said, “The BMC has one junior tree officer in each of its 24 wards. They often hire untrained labourers. Also, earlier, the BMC used an axe instead of an electric saw to trim a tree, which is more harmful.’’
“They should hire professionals or at least have a well-informed officer at the spot to make sure the tree is hacked properly to allow uniform growth of the canopy. Otherwise, the tree would grow on one side, get too heavy and then collapse,’’ he added. The other reason for tree falls is haphazard construction and concretisation near the roots. The civic body’s garden department did issue a circular in December 2018 to the roads department about a compulsory one metre radius around tree trunks, however, activists believe this is rarely followed by the BMC.
Pedestrian-first policy issued in 2016
The BMC issued the circular for its pedestrian-first policy in 2016, which states that the footpaths have to be pedestrian friendly.
However, the roads department has no data on the specific roads that have been constructed according to the 2016 policy. Giving a push to the policy, nearly three years later in February 2019, the civic body set aside ₹100 crore for repairing footpaths in the city.
Additional municipal commissioner Vijay Singhal said, “We need to first get estimates from the wards, then prepare a budget and then issue contracts. We cannot just disperse off the money. However, we are in the process of starting the construction of footpaths under the new policy in some wards.”
During the HT audit, it was found that the K-West ward in Vile Parle and Andheri West had constructed a few stretches of footpath of concrete slabs, according to the new policy. Stamp concrete slabs can mostly be seen in the suburbs where the policy has been implemented partially.
HT panel found that footpaths in South Mumbai were wide, given the high footfall, but those in the suburbs continued to be terrible. In several cases, our experts found roads without any footpaths or those encroached by two-wheelers.
Model road at Sobo, the way forward?
Local Samajwadi Party councillor Rais Shaikh has suggested a model road — Lamington Road-Bellasis Road in Nagpada — which is a closer implementation of the current footpath policy.
The model road includes parking for two-wheelers and card, pick-up points, bus stops, signage for pedestrians, extra width of footpath for schoolchildren, required facilities at industrial areas and reserved space for licenced hawkers.