High water and hell

Print edition : August 26, 2005

A short spell of unprecedented rain stops Mumbai dead in its tracks - a case of natural calamity compounded by distorted development priorities. Despair turns into anger on the streets as questions about the administration's ability to predict and manage disasters come to the fore.

Mumbai on July 27, a day after the heavy downpour.-SEBASTIAN D'SOUZA/AFP

JULY 26 began like any other normal monsoon morning in Mumbai. Millions of people went about attending office, going to school and college - only slightly inconvenienced by the incessant rain. It was towards the end of the day that they were to realise that this was no ordinary monsoon day. For, every one of Mumbai's 16 million residents was affected in one way or the other by the torrent. Mumbai recorded the highest ever rainfall (944 mm) in a 24-hour period in the country, higher than that recorded at Cherapunji (838 mm), one of the wettest places on the earth. Of this, 644 mm rain fell between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

While the Maharashtra government cited the "unprecedented rains", as the Meteorological Department put it, as the reason for the disaster, it was evident that the absence of a disaster management plan and a series of developmental blunders were at the root of the problem. Days after the "Terrible Tuesday", angry citizens are wondering whether the human tragedy could have been avoided. Why was no weather alert issued? Why did waterlogging occur on such a large scale? Was the disaster largely man-made? These are some of the questions that remain to be answered.

Heavy rain coupled with a 4.5 metre high tide, caused mayhem in the city. By the afternoon of July 26 water levels on the streets had started to rise rapidly. Office-goers began to leave their workplace early, as they would on any rainy day. But not all of them were able to reach their homes that night. At about 7 p.m. Mumbai came to a complete halt. At least one-third of the surface area of the city was flooded; the metropolis was practically cut off from the rest of Maharashtra. Telecommunication lines were snapped; arterial roads were jammed; the airport was closed and public transport came to a grinding halt. The three suburban train networks, the lifelines of the city, could not operate for close to 36 hours, stranding an estimated 150,000 people. Some spent two days away from their homes, while many trudged for 12-15 hours to make it. Almost 15,000 children were stranded in schools without food and water. With no rescue operations in place Mumbai's residents were left to fend for themselves.

Pune and the Konkan region of the State also felt the onslaught of the rain. On July 26, 15 other districts recorded rainfall at least 20 per cent in excess of their normal seasonal range.

The rain left a trail of death and destruction. The State government put the toll at 1,059 - 736 in Mumbai and neighbouring Thane, 191 in Konkan and 132 in the rest of the State. However, the official figures seemed low as more accounts of the impact of the flood havoc emerged even after a week of the deadly downpour. The rain caused major landslides and flooding in several parts of the State. With roads buried under water and land around railway tracks eroded, the Konkan region was cut off for days.

Apparently, the Navy had warned the State government about the impending heavy rainfall. The Meteorological Department claims that it does not have Doppler radars, which would have given warnings three hours in advance. Furthermore, the cloudburst theory does not explain the rain in northern Karnataka, Goa and the Konkan stretch. In fact, weather reports on several television channels and web sites had showed a thick cloud over the region.

THE days that followed were filled with dreadful stories of people stranded in buses and trains and cars filled with water. In some cases car locks jammed, resulting in the death of the occupants owing to suffocation. As people were wading through the water in some places, they saw bodies and carcasses floating. The spirit and resilience of the people of Mumbai also came out. Ordinary citizens opened their homes to strangers. People provided food and water to those stranded. An apartment building took in a busload of schoolchildren, fed them, let them sleep in homes and helped them make contact with their families. A pregnant woman was accommodated by slum-dwellers.

It took 24 hours for the city police, the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the bureaucracy to come to grips with the situation. Electricity had been cut off as a safety measure. It took between three and10 days to restore power in some areas and, as a result, drinking water supply was hit. The corporation had a mountain of garbage and carcasses to clear.

About 60 per cent of Mumbai's population falls under the urban poor category and inevitably it is this section that suffered the most. Relief took time to reach the affected areas. Thousands of people were on the road with no immediate help coming their way. Eventually, voluntary organisations took over the responsibility of providing shelter, food and clothing. When the water receded, the affected people were provided with a small quantity of provisions and sent back home. "We should now concentrate on the long-term effects. People are scared to come out. Schools are empty. We have to remove this fear," said Neha Madhiwala, a voluntary worker.

Army jawans ferrying an elderly person in Vakola to provide medical help.-

Fortunately, no epidemic broke out in the immediate aftermath of the floods but there is still the possibility of this happening in the relief camps where 50,000 people have been accommodated. In Mumbai, the government ordered all housing societies to add chlorine to their water tanks while they decontaminated the water supply. The fear of leptospirosis loomed over the city. All those who waded through water were advised to take preventive medicines.

To make matters worse, a landslide at Sakinaka in north-west Mumbai on July 27, killed 65 people and rendered hundreds homeless. Kurla and Kalina were among the worst-affected suburbs in Mumbai. Both these areas are on the banks of the Mithi river that passes through the city before entering the sea at Mahim. Over the years, the river has been encroached and parts of it reclaimed for construction. The narrowing of the river intensified the force and extent of the floods in areas along its banks.

Narrating his experience, Chain Bahadur Singh, a paan shop owner, said: "We climbed on the rooftop as the water level had touched the roof of my house. People from the buildings nearby threw ropes and heaved us to safety. They gave us food and shelter. We had not eaten for two days. There was no electricity for a week. The garbage was rotting and the stench was so bad, we couldn't even breathe. The thought of what we went through brings tears to my eyes. We have got a new lease of life. We have lost everything and are starting from scratch."

In Kalina, near the airport, the Air-India and Indian Airlines employees' colonies were submerged in 12-feet ( four metres) water. "I was returning home from office, but got stuck in the traffic jam. Our colony was flooded, I couldn't reach home for two days. I stayed at a friend's house nearby," said Arun Nalavade, a resident of the Air-India society. "Six people in a tempo drowned. No police or fire brigade personnel came to help. The Air India staff helped rescue them and others stranded on the road." The colony went without food, water and electricity for four days.

In Jogeshwari, Malad and Kandivali, a nullah overflowed and washed away the hutments nearby. Although electricity and water supply were restored to these areas, residences and shops were ruined. "We have very little to survive on," said Mary Rajkumar, who owns a trinket shop in the colony. Further north in Vasai and Nalasopara, the water had not receded even three days after the rain. In fact, these areas were inaccessible.

A man who was missing for almost 30 hours, was spotted by his family members entering the housing colony at Dombivli in Thane district. As the water level was still high, they were unable to go down and receive him. They waited at the front door for him. But he failed to appear. His body was found two days later in a gutter outside the colony's gates.

THE government is still in the process of assessing the damage. As of August 6, it had estimated the loss of business at Rs.450 crores. The Indian Merchants Chambers, however, pegs the loss at Rs.5,000 crores. An analyst dismisses the government estimate as conservative, and said the loss was most likely to be around Rs.15,000 crores given the damage caused to the stocks lying in godowns and considering the fact that all commercial trading and industrial activities had come to a halt for at least three days.

According to official statistics, over 1,87,000 houses all over the State have been damaged, affecting eight lakh families. An estimated 27,424 square metres of the State roads were buried owing to landslides, much of it in the Konkan region, and 18,362 kilometres of roads needed to be rebuilt. Chhagan Bhujbal, Minister for Public Works, said the outlay for the repair of the national highways would definitely exceed Rs.4,100 crores. Approximately Rs.1,000 crores worth of public property, such as schools and water supply projects and dispensaries were destroyed. According to figures released by the transport authorities in Mumbai, 52 local trains, 37,000 autorickshaws, 4,000 taxis, 900 BEST (Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport) buses and 10,000 trucks and tempos were grounded. The government has released Rs.500 crores towards relief work. The Centre has cleared an additional Rs.500 crores.

SOUTH Mumbai was left untouched by the deluge. It was the northern suburbs and mainland, where rampant development has been happening in recent years, which was paralysed. The fact is that the accumulated water had no outlet in spite of the vast sea surrounding the city. Planners said it was the concretisation of Mumbai that was responsible for the crisis and not the "unprecedented rainfall". And to that extent, the government's culpability in the crisis is total.

Perhaps the best proof of this is the much-touted Bandra-Kurla complex - Mumbai's first step towards becoming a booming, Shanghai-like business centre. Kurla was the worst affected by the flooding. When first mooted, the Bandra-Kurla complex dazzled corporate Mumbai, which saw visions of it emerging as a self-contained beehive of commerce, making Mumbai a crucial link in the international trade chain between the Far East and Europe. The area had all the amenities, including a conveniently located international airport. But there was one basic flaw. The complex was built on mangrove marshes that surround the mouth of the Mithi river near the Mahim bay. Construction rubble from Mumbai was used to fill the marshes and a shiny new business zone rose in almost record time to compete with south Mumbai's Nariman Point.

In the early 1990s, when the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority was developing the Bandra-Kurla complex, environmentalists had warned the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) of a possible backlash. Owing to the commercial promise it held, the project required no environmental clearance, as was the case with big construction projects in the suburbs. So 730 acres of land was filled, ignoring the recommendations of the K.G. Paranjape Committee in 1987; Dr. Kulkarni's report prepared for the Central Institute of Fisheries in 1992; the Mangrove Committee of 1993; the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute report of 1994-96; and the Bombay Natural History Society's report for the MoEF.

The choking of the Mithi is considered one of the major reasons for the waterlogging. For safety reasons, if nothing else, the banks of the river should have been kept clear but they were approved for slum development schemes, planners said. So builders took over the slums, along with portions of the river. The first building came on the riverbed itself thereby restricting its flow.

Juhu in the suburbs, is a good example of the effects of uncontrolled development. Juhu used to have small bungalows. Now it is a concrete jungle. Every single inch of its development is responsible for the present crisis. The unlimited Floor Space Index (FSI), and the creation of extra avenues to dump transfer of development right (TDR) on the suburbs resulted in aggravating the problem. (TDR is a form of FSI, which entitles a land owner to construct additional building on his land. Under TDR, reserved plots are surrendered to the BMC for development). In town planning terms, these are means to strangulate a healthy city.

At Kalina, one of the worst-affected areas.-SEBASTIAN D'SOUZA/AFP

All these areas where the TDR was approved were once small localities with all basic amenities. The land was well utilised and so it had the capacity to respond to calamities. If there was excess rain in the past then there was enough room for water to run off.

The absence of a modern or upgraded stormwater drainage system has also been blamed for the flooding. To call the present system antiquated would perhaps be incorrect since a large part of it was installed about a hundred years ago but the system is bearing a far greater burden than it was designed to. With pipes designed to carry 25 mm of water an hour, the system was certainly inadequate for an overload caused by 944 mm of rainfall. In 1990, the Corporation proposed a Rs.600-crore project to overhaul the stormwater drains. The plan envisaged among other things laying pipes with a larger diameter that would accommodate higher volumes of water in order to eliminate the chronic flooding that Mumbai's low lying areas experience every monsoon. But it was rejected on the grounds of cost. Mumbai used to have several natural drainage systems but these have also been blocked by a skewed process of development.

Mumbai is a realtor's dream city. It is among the top 10 cities in the world in terms of expensive real estate. In July the government even changed a few policies to allow an increase in the FSI.

Mumbai's residents may have displayed resilience in the hour of crisis, but their growing anger towards the administration is gradually building. There have been street protests demanding that the garbage and carcasses be cleared and electricity restored. People have also realised that builders have been given too much leeway.

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