Lessons from Mumbai’s fatal rainy affair

People stand among the debris after a wall collapsed on hutments due to heavy rains in Mumbai, India July 2, 2019. REUTERS

Last month, in two days alone, Mumbai received its average rainfall for the entire of June. 13,000 kilometres away, in Washington DC, something similar unfolded—the Capital received a month’s worth of rain in 24 hours. The results were similar—visuals of streets and markets flooded, of vehicles submerged in water and life thrown off gear.

Both episodes were described as freak episodes by local authorities, episodes that defy patterns. That’s where the similarities ended.

In Mumbai, 27 people were killed in their sleep, after a wall built by Mumbai’s civic body, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), to guard its reservoir collapsed on their homes. Three more people died in Kalyan in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) after a wall collapsed on them. In Washington DC, the casualties were zero.

Rainy days aside, six people have already lost their lives because of falling branches and trees on Mumbai’s streets.

These deaths are a severe indictment of the BMC’s failures in its role to not just prevent flooding but, more importantly, to deliver an effective response to such a situation. The two major killers this monsoon, the wall collapse and the branch falls, come under the BMC’s ambit. In fact, in the wall collapse, it was later revealed that the wall was built by the BMC at the cost of Rs 21 crore only two years ago. Till then, a colonial-era wall remained unmoved for over a century, holding out despite many a heavy monsoon. Similarly, in April this year, the BMC appointed 23 contractors to trim trees across the city for the next two years.

An Annual Affair

More than the flooding and the temporary halt to life in the city that rains in Mumbai cause, what is more worrying is the city authorities’ blase attitude towards the regular loss of life.

Last year, at least 34 people died in 1,700 rain-related instances, government data shows. This included the collapse of a pedestrian bridge on commuters waiting on the Andheri railway platform. The year before, at least 40 people had died in rain-related instances, including the 23 who died in a ghastly stampede at the Elphinstone Road railway station in Central Mumbai.

Almost always, these instances are preventable and the negligence criminal. At the time of writing this piece, frantic efforts were on to rescue a 3-year-old who fell into an open drain on Wednesday night in north-west Mumbai.

Rainfall aplenty, as always

Shiv Sena heir and the president of its youth wing, Aaditya Thackeray, as well the chief of the BMC, Pravin Pardeshi, have gone on to blame climate change for the torrential rains in Mumbai. In the same breath, Pardeshi made a stunning admission that the civic body, India’s richest, does not even factor in climate change while planning infrastructure for the city.

A look at Mumbai’s peculiar situation shows that flooding is a reality that the city will have to endure. Most of Mumbai lies barely a few metres above the sea level. The average height above the sea level is 14 metres in Mumbai. Coupled with this, being a coastal city means that tidal patterns have a direct correlation with the city’s drainage systems—in high tides, sea water gushes into the city’s drains, in the low tides, the sea allows the drains to pump water out from the city into the sea. Lastly, the drainage system itself, a colonial relic, was designed to handle only 25mm of hourly rainfall. Last week, Mumbai saw 375mm of rainfall in 24 hours, leaving no chance for the drains to cope with.

Worsening such a situation is Mumbai’s haphazard growth. “Over the years the development has happened in pockets which has led to tackling of problems in piece meal approach leading to creation of new problems in other areas,” says Animesh Prakash, Oxfam India’s Project Lead, working on issues of water management.

A massive project to overhaul the city's drainage system and double their capacity, first mooted in 1985, has been in implementation for the last 14 years and is only half-complete.

Such delays are criminal. What is more criminal is the poor response that the city’s authorities deliver, whenever disaster strikes the city.

Solutions Abound, Takers None

Many believe that the emphasis for cities like Mumbai and Chennai, who have seen real threats of flooding and the loss of life and property, must be on participatory disaster mitigation by involving citizens.

Ranit Chaterjee, a postdoctoral fellow at Kyoto University, working on issues of disaster management, especially in urban contexts, points to examples from across the MMR as templates that must be replicated—in Navi Mumbai, officials from civil defence were trained as volunteers for forming disaster response teams; in Bhiwandi, school principals voluntarily created mechanisms for flood warning and response in local communities.

“The government must focus on community-based warning mechanism rather than a top down approach where much time is lost in reaching out to people during the time of such disasters,” Chaterjee says. He also believes that Indian cities must adopt holistic approaches to planning, in order to fight threats of such natural disasters better, pointing to Tokyo’s example in tackling flooding. From involving different stakeholders to ensuring climate change-sensitive planning to stronger infrastructure, Tokyo, he says, has many lessons to offer to Indian cities.

Yet, Mumbai seems far away from learning such lessons. Some of Mumbai’s biggest infrastructural projects, currently being executed, are recklessly damaging crucial ecology—over 30,000 square metres of mangroves, which act as the buffer between the sea and land, are being chopped for creating a sea link, the city is also reclaiming around 90 hectares of land from the sea for the same project, over 30,000 mangroves will be hacked for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project.

Combine this recklessness with bureaucratic negligence and the maximum city might continue to see witness such deadly monsoons.

(Kunal Purohit is a Mumbai-based independent journalist and an alumnus of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He writes on development, gender, politics and the intersections between them)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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