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Mumbai marooned: Demand answers of the BMC and Maharashtra government

Incidents of unusually high rainfall and cloudbursts were rare or once-in-a-century kind of occurrences, we were assured in 2005.

mumbai Updated: Aug 31, 2017 09:14 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Smruti Koppikar
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,Mumbai rain,BMC
Small boats kept for rescue at Hindamata,Parel.(Pratik Chorge/HT Photo)

Mumbai was marooned by heavy rain and floods on Tuesday for the second time in 12 years. Mercifully, only a handful of lives were lost unlike in the deluge of July 26, 2005 which had claimed more than 400 lives. But the 316 mm of rain in 12 hours – only about a third of the 2005 downpour – battered the city, left millions stranded, and made a mockery of its claims of improved disaster management systems.

Incidents of unusually high rainfall and cloudbursts were rare or once-in-a-century kind of occurrences, we were assured in 2005. They do not seem uncommon any more. What is rare is the willingness of those who govern Mumbai – the state government, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, and other agencies – to collectively address the core issue: How to prepare for the worst case scenario and how to execute disaster management plans.

In three of the last seven years, Mumbai has experienced unusually high rainfall in a few hours in the month of August. Tuesday’s was the fourth and most severe. There would be a few more days of extreme rain in June and July of a year since the 2005 deluge. On each occasion, the city came to a standstill, its suburban railway system was disrupted or halted, BEST buses braved the floods, arterial roads were gridlocked with traffic for hours on end. Millions suffered and were angry.

The day was saved by the proverbial Good Samaritans who opened doors to their homes, restaurants and sheltering places, by individual police and civic personnel who went beyond the call of duty to provide assistance, by a few dedicated staffers in key offices of the government and BMC. A day or two later, Mumbai returned to its usual rhythm. The anger dissipated, over time it turned to indifference or disinterest.

We did not remain angry, we did not demand accountability from those in charge of the city, we did not penalise them in elections.

After 2005, the city’s systems were supposed to be geared to tackle unusually high rainfall or cloudburst situations. Their response on Tuesday should have been calm, comprehensive and coordinated. It was not. This was the first failure, never mind the Thackeray father-son’s justifications. Nullah-cleaning, that too in a scattered manner, does not amount to preparing Mumbai for rain, let alone an unusually heavy downpour, Mr Uddhav Thackeray.

The initial lack of coordination between different agencies was another drawback. The first advisory came at around 2pm after the transport systems had been well and truly disrupted, and millions marooned. There was a comical contradiction too: At around 2.30pm, the state government urged its employees and others to head home but the Mumbai Police asked people to stay indoors wherever they were.

Why were coherent and useful advisories not issued earlier? Who erred? And how can two authorities issue contradictory advisories? Then, the National Disaster Management Authority put out a series of tweet-advisories, one asking Mumbaiites to use walking sticks or poles to look for open manholes and another advising them to “avoid contact with flood waters”. These might have been attempts at dark humour. Surely the agency can do better.

Dissemination of accurate and credible information is a key aspect of disaster management. Clearly, the BMC, state government and agencies like the NDMA floundered. The Met department had issued a forecast of heavy rain for Monday-Tuesday, but then the department goes off-key more often than not. Citizens are not equipped to make sense of the Met’s warnings; the government and BMC are. It’s their responsibility to interpret forecasts and inform Mumbaiites in time. Not doing so meant setting up the city for the disaster. That’s another failure.

There are larger fundamental issues. Back in 1985, after a city-stopping deluge, a detailed plan was worked out to expand the storm water carrying capacity of Mumbai’s drainage system, called the BRIMSTOWAD plan. It is rarely discussed or its implementation given priority by administrations obsessed with cosmetic projects such as the sealink or Smart City Mission. Of the BMC’s staggering Rs 2.19 lakh crores total budget in the last ten years, it spent barely 18% or some Rs 40,000 crores on creating or upgrading basic infrastructure, as this paper pointed out earlier.

Beyond it all lies the unsurprising unwillingness of agencies to factor in impacts of climate change and rising sea levels in Mumbai’s plans and projects. The city’s natural water drainage systems are treated with disdain and neglect, its green and open areas gifted to real estate developers, and natural sponges such as wetlands, mangroves and salt pan lands nonchalantly denotified for construction. Till this changes, there’s little hope for Mumbai.

The Shiv Sena and BJP which shared power in the BMC have much to answer for. As do the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party whose alliance governments (1999 to 2014) created a parallel and autonomous – to that extent, undemocratic – network of agencies to govern Mumbai. Now, the buck stops at the chief minister’s table via Thackeray’s bungalow. Nurse your anger, hold them accountable.

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First Published: Aug 30, 2017 19:02 IST