The infrastructure of Mumbai, India’s most populated city, is under severe pressure. It assumes dangerous proportions during the monsoons. In almost every monsoon in the recent past, the city has witnessed several breakdowns, with at least a couple of tragic incidents in which many have lost their lives.
This July, two major rain-related incidents claimed the lives of close to 50 people, exposing the sorry state of the civic administration. Many people feel that both tragedies could have been averted had government agencies been more responsible. Apparently, the city, which is bursting at the seams, could not even provide shelter to those affected in both incidents.
Since the deluge of 2005 in which an estimated 1,000 people died (Cover Story, Frontline , August 26, 2005), the State government has tried to put in place disaster-management mechanisms. Yet, they cannot seem to cope with the devastation when it occurs. Urban planners and the city’s rights activists point out that without a holistic approach and tremendous foresight in planning, these incidents are going to repeat themselves.
However, it is not just about managing a disaster but about cleaning up a complex and murky situation involving the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the Maharashtra Housing Area Development Authority (MHADA), land sharks, complicated housing regulations which include rent-control laws, encroachments and uncontrolled spread of slums. The BMC is squarely to blame in most incidents. But it appears to have no accountability, says an urban development expert. Various studies peg the population of the urban poor in Mumbai at approximately 40 per cent. They are the backbone of the city and the reason the powerful metropolis functions. But it is this section that takes the brunt of disaster every time it strikes. Other than being a vote bank, the poor in Mumbai are perhaps not considered worthy of the government’s attention.
Malad wall collapse
On July 2, a 2.3-kilometre, 15-foot-high boundary wall that separated a slum colony from the Malad reservoir collapsed because of incessant rain. The wall fell around midnight and on the shanties of Ambedkar Nagar colony in Malad, located in the north-west region of the city’s suburbs within the Greater Mumbai territory. The official death toll is 31.
The colony consists of an estimated 3,000 shanties. Officials are not clear on the exact number of houses that have been destroyed. The Forest Department is undertaking a survey in the affected area. The slum borders on forest land.
State government officials are also in the process of estimating the number of families displaced. “People just got washed away. Their bodies were later found near the Versova creek where the water enters the sea. It was like a river had overflowed into the slum,” says Sanjay Gorde, who lives near the affected zone.
It is a heart-wrenching story of loss everywhere: parents who lost children, children who lost both parents, an elderly woman who lost her entire family, a young woman who lost her husband and newborn child. Adding to the misery is the fact that the victims, being slum dwellers, most often do not have legal addresses. This makes it difficult to even open bank accounts to deposit any compensation.
The waters not only destroyed homes but washed away savings, household essentials and every material possession they owned. “So many of the injured do not want to leave the hospital as they have nowhere to go,” says Amita Gupta, a social worker at KEM Hospital.
An electric cable that fell on Sumati Manji (56) has left her immobile. “We have nowhere to go. My children have gone to my sister’s house, but she also lives in a basti and has her own family to support,” says Sumati, who is now undergoing therapy at KEM Hospital.
Sumati works as a domestic worker and her husband is a daily-wage labourer. “I have a bank account but some of the other people do not. All our documents, including Aadhaar cards, have been washed away. How will we cash the cheque? What use is the money if we cannot get it?” she says.
Sumati says her neighbours lost both their children. “One was a baby and the other a toddler. They were carried away by the water. Both were drowned. Their bodies were recovered from a nallah.”
The incident took place at midnight, but relief agencies reached only in the early hours of the morning. Eyewitnesses believe that people trapped could have been saved had the agencies arrived sooner. Gorde says people were rushed to hospital in autorickshaws, on cycles or by whatever mode of transport was found.
It took more than two days for the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and the Mumbai Fire Brigade, with help from BMC workers, to clean the debris. Typical of Mumbai’s slums, Ambedkar Nagar colony is a maze of narrow lanes. Bringing in machinery to the affected area was close to impossible, the BMC told the media. As part of its rehabilitation efforts, the BMC has offered to relocate the affected families to areas where it can provide housing. Mahul, which is located on the eastern part of the city, is one such area that has been identified. Local people say it would be like living in a gas chamber as it is a heavily industrialised area surrounded by oil refineries and chemical factories.
The bigger question, however, is, How does a wall built by the BMC just two years ago to protect the tenement not withstand the water pressure? An independent fact-finding team that included members of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) says the wall incident is nothing short of a “state-induced disaster”.
The report says: “The difference between a retaining wall and a compound wall is that the latter is not designed to resist lateral pressure of soil when the ground level is changed on different sides of the wall. The wall was poorly designed—did not have any outlets or holes to allow surface runoff—which would have released the pressure of water.”
Dongri building collapse
Two weeks later, on July 16, a four storeyed, 100-year-old building in the congested neighbourhood of Dongri in South Mumbai collapsed. An illegal extension that put pressure on the foundation and the incessant rain led to the cave-in of Kesarbai Building. At last count, the death toll was 13. Some 40 people were injured. The BMC says all the 15 families residing in the dilapidated building have been evacuated. It took the NDRF, the Mumbai Fire Department and the BMC close to 30 hours to remove the bodies and people trapped under the debris. Once again the area’s geography hindered movement. Machinery could not be brought in through the narrow lanes.
The Kesarbai Building case once again exposed the unpreparedness of rescue forces. It is also a perfect example of the complex and undesirable structure of Mumbai’s housing regulations, which leads to these incidents.
The Dongri area in Mumbai municipality’s B ward is among the older areas of the island. Most buildings would be 50 to 100 years old. A walk through the congested lanes of Dongri is a grim reminder of the poor quality of life of people in the lower-income brackets have to endure. Staircases are broken, blocks of concrete on buildings lie exposed, balconies are precariously perched, windows are shattered, and bare electric wiring hangs from everywhere. There is barely enough space to walk along open gutters and street shops; motorbikes and hand carts occupy most of the road.
Kesarbai Building falls under the BMC’s C1 category (dangerous) and under the MHADA’s list of cessed buildings. For some unexplained reason, the BMC did not issue a demolition notice even though it is empowered to do so. The MHADA says the building’s owners had not paid cess for several years and therefore the cash-strapped authority could not redevelop or renovate the structure.
There are 14,375 cessed properties under the MHADA, which does not own the structures but is responsible for their repair and reconstruction as the buildings pay cess. Most cessed structures are found in the island city and are under the rent control system of ownership, where flats have been sublet over the years. The low rents are not enough for the owners to maintain properties, let alone pay cess, and so they just let them go to seed.
People are desperate for a place to live in this city and so they brave the hazards of living in such dilapidated structures.
According to BMC records, there are 619 extremely dilapidated buildings in the city. The cash-rich BMC, for some mysterious reason, is unwilling to get into development work. The Commissioner was unable for comment.
In a bid to address the issues of dilapidated structures and rent control, the Maharashtra government amended the Development Control Rules in 2009 allowing cluster development in some areas such as Dongri. The State government offered private developers a floor space index (FSI) of three and above, depending on the number of tenants and the number of buildings in the cluster plan. While the initiative was noble in that it hoped to offer tenants safer and quality accommodation, the project is in limbo as owners claim that private developers are trying to make massive profits from the reconstruction project.
Following the Kesarbai Building tragedy, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis appears to have taken a proactive stand on the dilapidated building issue. Fadnavis has instructed the MHADA and the BMC to work together on surveying the condition of dangerous buildings.
He told the media that a comprehensive law to ensure the smooth development of the listed buildings would be enacted and that residents of these buildings would be given transit accommodation or financial help that would cover their rental costs for two years.
In the decade since the cluster law was passed, about six buildings have come up, says Abdul Khadar, a furniture trader in Dongri. He says if Fadnavis can make this work, it will be nothing short of a miracle. Census data show Mumbai’s population to be 127 lakh and population density approximately 26,375 people per square kilometre. It is among the 10 most populated cities in the world. Housing ought to be a huge concern for the administration.