01/09/2017 11:10 PM IST | Updated 01/09/2017 11:24 PM IST

A Flooded Mumbai Is Calling Out For Our Help, And We Aren't Listening

A city under water.

Danish Siddiqui / Reuters
Image used for representational purpose.

As horror stories emerge from Mumbai in the aftermath of the floods that brought the island city to its knees, in the grand tradition of Indian politics and bureaucracy, government agencies are either busy with image management by trying to hoodwink people into thinking things aren't as bad as they look, or lashing out at easy targets in a desperate attempt to absolve themselves of responsibility.

The death toll from the deluge has climbed to 20. A renowned gastroenterologist fell into a manhole and died a kilometer away from his home. A 29-year-old lawyer who went to park his car suffocated and died in it. Two 2-year-old children died in landslides near their houses. Two young men drowned in open drains. A teenager, drowned during the Ganpati immersion.

And yet, Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray, whose party runs the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), seemed to be proud of the fact that unlike the 26 July, 2005 floods, the city was back on its feet within a day. He even went so far as to compare this week's downpour with Hurricane Harvey and how even Houston was still submerged. Never mind that the tropical storm broke national records in the US with almost 52 inches of rain, whereas Mumbai recorded about 12 inches of rain on Tuesday.

The comparison with the 2005 floods — the day has simply come to be known as 26/7 in popular parlance — is faulty as well. Twelve years ago, in the tragic floods that claimed about 500 lives, Mumbai received about 37 inches of rainfall, over three times of what it received on Tuesday.

Perhaps Thackeray needs a new yardstick to measure the success of his governance.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

On 30 August, in a deplorable show of insensitivity and arrogance, Thackeray congratulated the civic body for doing a "commendable job" in the face of harsh weather conditions during a press conference. Later, when reporters questioned him pointedly about the repeated failure of the city's infrastructural machinery every time there is heavy rainfall, he lashed out at them saying, "You stop the rains then... Tell me what should I do?"

He even went on to hit out at opposition parties for their criticism over inadequate desilting (removal of dirt, sand and grainy soil) of drains, saying that those he felt this way should go down the drains and inspect them on their own. And, of course, there was the inevitable blame game — while Thackeray would have us believe that the inundation was a result of roads being dug up due to the central and state government's metro project, the BJP wants the Sena to apologise for its negligence.

Naturally, passing the buck is a lot more convenient than taking a long hard look at what went wrong, what should have been done in the first place, and what needs to be done to fix Mumbai's annual water-logging problem so that we don't find ourselves submerged every few years.

What Thackeray should be concerned with is the abysmal state of the projects that had been announced in the aftermath of 26/7 to prevent exactly the kind of situation Mumbai found itself in once again, on 29 August.

12 years later, the BMC has completed only 28 projects, 27 are still in progress and three projects had not even started.

In the wake of the 2005 cloudburst, the BMC had revived its two-decade-old Brihanmumbai Storm Water Drainage (BRIMSTOWAD) plan, based on the report of Watson Hawksley, a British consultant. Hawksley had been commissioned to prepare a plan that would allow Mumbai to tackle up to 50 mm of rainfall per hour instead of the 25 mm capacity of its 100-year-old drainage system, after major floods hit Mumbai in 2005.

Where Did The Money Go?

According to the plan, Mumbai was to get eight pumping stations to drain the roads and 58 projects were planned to upgrade the city's drainage system in two phases. 12 years later, the BMC has completed only 28 projects, 27 are still in progress and three projects have not even started — the BMC had not issued tenders for them, as of June this year. This report pegs the number of completed projects at 38. Even so, the plan is far for complete.

Out of the eight pumping stations, one missed two deadlines, one was awaiting environmental clearance, and one was stuck due to property disputes. The BMC had no alternate solution to the problem of flooding, and so, the city's drainage capacity continues to hover at 25 to 30 mm an hour, awaiting the completion of the BRIMSTOWAD.

The cost of the project has shot up from Rs 1,200 crore in 2006 to Rs 4,700 crore, as of today.

According to this report, the condition of Mumbai since 2005 has worsened instead of becoming better. The BRIMSTOWAD's initial deadline of 2011 was pushed to 2016 due to the BMC's sluggish pace of work, but as we can see, there is still no end in sight. The cost of the project has shot up from Rs 1,200 crore in 2006 to Rs 4,700 crore, as of today.

The project to widen the Mithi river to prevent it from overflowing the way it did on 26/7, one of the main causes of the flooding, too lies neglected. Over the years, Mithi river has not only been encroached upon, but also clogged with plastic waste. Until both these issues are addressed, Mumbai will continue to suffer from violent flooding. According to this report, as of 25 May this year, the BMC had completed only 20 percent of the cleaning work of the Mithi. In 2016, it had completed 76 percent of the work by the same time. At many spots, desilting work had not even begun.

It's not as if the BMC doesn't have the funds to complete the projects. In the current fiscal year, close to 40 percent, or Rs 978 crores, of the civic budget was earmarked for the development and maintenance of the city's drainage system. Between April 2014 and August 2017, the BMC claimed to have spent Rs 2,428 crore on garbage management and approx Rs 9,000 crores on road projects. In the last five months, the BMC has issued orders worth Rs 1,208 crores under the stormwater drains (SWD) department.

Where did all this money go, given that Mumbai couldn't even withstand nine hours of heavy rainfall?

Danish Siddiqui / Reuters
Image used for representational purpose

Considering the shoddy administration of the city, the floods on Tuesday were inevitable, not the result of an "extreme weather condition," as BMC chief Ajoy Mehta called it. It is high time that Thackeray, Mehta and others stop calling the debacle a "once in 10 years" kind of downpour. On 19 June, 2015, the city received around 11 inches of rainfall, almost the same as on Tuesday, and just like this year, it was enough to cripple it.

Perhaps it is testament to how little Mumbai has come to expect from its civic authorities that the city's monsoon unpreparedness year after year no longer surprised or shocked us. Each year, during the monsoons, there are days when the city comes to a standstill; its infrastructure fails, trains stop working due to water-logged railway lines, traffic comes to a grinding halt and there is immense loss of property, and sometimes, even life.

There is public outrage and cries for accountability for a few days, but eventually, citizens quietly scramble back to the humdrum of normal life, resigned to the fact that nothing much can be expected from the BMC. The city limps back to some semblance of normalcy, and all is forgotten, if not forgiven, as we bid the monsoons a relieved goodbye.

Until the next year, when the cycle repeats itself and the city protests with renewed vigour.

STR New / Reuters

'Water Is A Resource Management Issue'

According to Suresh Kumar Rohilla, the water programme director at Centre of Science and Environment, and director of Centre for Excellence of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Mumbai and other metros in the country will increasingly suffer from the fury of the monsoons till we don't fix what is fundamentally broken in the way we plan and develop our urban centres.

"We need to stop thinking of water and flooding as an infrastructural issue with an engineering solution. We want more and more pumps to be able to drain the water when floods hit the city. As the financial capital of the country, Mumbai has access to the best kind of equipment. But what happens when the pumps can't work because there is no electricity due to the rains? Water is a resource management issue, he says.

"The national disaster management force, the meteorological department, and climate change studies are saying it. Why aren't we listening?"

"I don't know why we are surprised by heavy or unpredictable rainfall. There is ample evidence that rainfall is going to be increasingly unpredictable and extreme events will occur every year," says Rohilla. "The national disaster management force, the meteorological department, and climate change studies are saying it. Why aren't we listening?"

"Flooding is not a drainage issue either," says Rohilla. According to him, converting kuccha nullahs (drains) into pucca ones is not the solution because the problem is not underground covered drainage, but the fact that all the entry points to our drainage system are clogged with silt, plastic, construction material and all kinds of solid waste.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The solution, Rohilla claims, is not in adopting a preventive approach instead of a reactive one, like water-sensitive planning. The existing city has to provide more space to rivers to moderate the strong flow of water flow during the rains. New development needs to be based not just on patterns of the past, but predictions of the future that takes into account flood moderation, and adaptability to extreme events," he says

Green Infrastructure

And there needs to be a strong emphasis on green infrastructure during urban development.

"The richest cities in the world are providing more room for rivers. Even parks and open spaces need to be designed not just from the recreation point of view, but in a way that allows water to flow in a cascading way—from medium to small water bodies and then the sea," explains Rohilla.

What he means is that if naturally, for example, if it used to take two hours for the water to reach the sea due to the city's topography, it now takes only one hour because all the natural channels and kuccha areas that used to absorb the water have been concretised. Ultimately, if every drop of water reaches the river that has already been narrowed due to encroachment and garbage dumping, in a much shorter time, naturally there will be floods.

While it is undeniably the job of the government and civic authorities to plan and build cities keeping in mind longevity, sustainability and their ability to withstand extreme conditions, it has to be acknowledged that some amount of the blame rests with the way we treat the city.

AFP/Getty Images
In this photograph taken on June 3, 2015, an Indian woman attempts to clean a clogged open sewage drain adjoining a slum in Mumbai in Mumbai.

The Blame's On Us

On Wednesday, 30 August, 28,000 staffers of the BMC removed 5,000 metric tonnes of garbage, which was washed in with the flood water. This garbage didn't come out of nowhere. As citizens, we should be ashamed that we've allowed our precarious drainage system to be clogged to such a deplorable extent.

One of the major reasons so many of the BRIMSTOWAD's 58 plans continue to remain incomplete is because of the encroachment. According to a report in Hindustan Times, a senior civic official claimed that the status of many nullahs has remained unchanged because of the 12,000-odd shanties that have cropped up along the nullahs. Mangroves, that serve as natural and vital flood barriers too have been rapidly encroached due to the rapid population growth in the city since the 1980s. This report compares satellite images of the city's map from 1988 and 2017, proving the extent of unchecked construction on Mumbai's mangroves.

Some of that is on us, too.

If Mumbai has to survive the next time the floods come gushing, it is not sufficient to point fingers at the government and the BMC alone. We certainly have the right to demand better from civic authorities, but we also have a constitutional duty to protect our natural environment. Right now, we're failing at that duty just as miserably as the government is failing us.