Muddling through monsoon is Mumbai’s de facto response
Mumbai was battered and bruised by torrential rain last Sunday-Monday. Its citizens were killed, its rhythms disrupted, its transport networks thrown into disarray, and its claims of being an international city marooned once again.
Mumbaiites did the best they could in the face of merciless monsoon and unpreparedness of the city’s administrators – helped each other out, relayed information on waterlogged areas, extensively used social media, offered tea and snacks to the stranded, some even took in strangers for the night. Basically, we muddled through the monsoon madness.
The state government, the railways, and Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) too did what they usually do – remained ill-prepared for an excessive downpour though high rain days are now common, did not get into emergency mode till it was too late on Monday, failed to communicate important information as regular updates. Their foot soldiers did a wonderful job in the crisis, as they always do – policemen braved the rain to guide people, BMC staff worked overtime through Monday night, BEST drivers guided their buses through flooded streets when taxis and autorickshaws went off the roads.
It can be safely said that those in charge of the maximum city let it down, failed it utterly, once again. And that muddling through monsoon’s disaster days is now our de facto response, a strategy we adopt to ride out the rough days.
There are no guarantees that we will all live to tell our tales or get back to our homes in a piece. An open manhole might devour us, a carelessly built wall might smash us, a pothole might trip us, or our vehicle stuck in flood water might asphyxiate us. There’s no saying when we will become human flotsam or jetsam taken by the flood waters, washed up ashore on Mumbai’s beaches and streets.
Some bright spark will ask why people were living next to a wall like the one that collapsed in Malad or why should people be out in such relentless rain. It’s because the city pulsates with their labour, their skill, their energy but makes little space for them to rest their bodies at night or because it does not offer the luxury of a rainy holiday to all. The romance of rain is only for the select few who can afford it.
Rain, however hard and punishing, was not meant to be an emergency. It has been turned into one.
Mumbai is run by two sets of people – one which does not understand or respect its essential character as a coastal city with rivers and estuaries, and the other which considers every vacant piece of land as real estate to be constructed upon. Between them, the political class and the construction lobby, they have ensured that the city’s natural drainage systems lie wrecked while the built system of stormwater drains is simply insufficient on high rain days.
With some variations, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, municipal commissioner Praveen Pardeshi, and Aditya Thackeray justified that this was “unprecedented rain”, “climate change”, et cetera. Is this supposed to wash away the turpitudes of their administration? It was the highest rainfall since the flood in July 2005 and second highest in July since 1974. But urban floods are now a stark reality. Mumbai should have been prepared for the worst of them. But its stormwater drains are not fully desilted, manholes are without meshes, and simple information cannot be relayed to commuters stuck in trains.
Worse, Mumbai’s flood management is not a significant aspect of its Development Plan for the next 15 years. Even worse, it’s surviving natural drainage systems like the saltpan lands, mangroves, rivers and rivulets, Aarey forest and more are earmarked – without adequate environmental impact assessment or sham studies – to be destroyed for constructing houses or the bullet train; Mumbai’s tidal rhythms intruded into for a coastal road.
This non-preparedness and wilful destruction should have led to administrators accepting blame, showing accountability and stepping down.
Instead, they are rewarded with repeated mandates and responsibility to build more damaging projects like the coastal road and bullet train. They float over the high rain day crisis, year after year, secure in the knowledge that we will criticise them for a day or two, and return to muddling through the monsoon.