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Marooned in Mumbai

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Unprecedented rains last week left Mumbai, and much of Maharashtra, in troubled waters. While Mumbaikars' resilience rose to the surface, the city administration plumbed the depths. Yet, there is hope that the disaster will push the megalopolis into makeover mode, says Vinod Mathew, citing the case of Surat.

In deep trouble Paul Noronha.
In deep trouble Paul Noronha.

Vinod Mathew

MUMBAI HAS very little time for anyone. You adjust to its pace and the city embraces you with open arms. The pace is such that no one spares a second glance if you get knocked down on the road as this would upset the clockwork-like precision that sets this megalopolis apart from the rest. But time is what the city found on its hands, for the past week as it was brought to its knees by water that could find no outlet.

True, the city does get off the `tiger-by-the-tail' mode once in a rare while. The Mumbai blasts of 1992 created one such occasion, deemed serious enough by its residents to merit disruption of normal life. To accord a similar status to storm water flooding what once used to be the Mithi river, now reduced to the status of a nullah (gutter), can only be seen as a big climb-down for a city that was in a Shanghai makeover mode till the other day.

One could have lived with a calamity of tsunami proportions bringing down the country's business capital to a grinding halt; not sheer ineptitude by authorities who were found to have feet of clay in the hour of crisis. Having glossed over such monsoon-triggered crises in the past, this year was expected to be no different a few deaths, at worst, and a few reprimands about a non-working disaster management plan. But what they thought would be a ripple turned out to be a tidal wave that would not let them get away.

The Mithi river, first diverted in the 1950s to lay the runway for Sahar airport, struck back with a vengeance. Those who knew the layout of the city from a few decades ago were not too surprised when a particularly nasty cloudburst saw the river crash through the airport walls, flood the runway of the premier airport and then wreak havoc in the adjacent Air India/Indian Airlines colony in Kalina.

Mumbai originally consisted of seven islands Bombay, Colaba, Mazgaon, Worli, Parel, Mahim and Salsette that were only connected at low tide. It was the East India Company that built the fort, now the Central Business District, in 1717 and began reclaiming land from the sea in 1730.

Thereafter, reclamation of land from sea became the major mode of city growth, with marshes levelled and mangroves decimated as the city administration played into the hands of slum inhabitants and builder lobbies. This was the cost the city paid while officially going in for reclamation in areas such as Backbay, Bandra-Kurla, Oshiwara, and Kalyan.

"The authorities cannot keep blaming nature and try and hide during monsoons, wishing away a problem that needs to be faced squarely. This, especially in a city that is built on reclaimed land to the extent of 40 per cent on the island and 20 per cent in the suburbs," says Prof B. Arunachalam, historian and author of works such as Mumbai By Sea.

Thus you have malls and high-rise buildings built on reclaimed land that is not raised to the desired levels, on the one hand, and the slums pushing into hills followed by builders, leading to mass deforestation and illegal quarrying, on the other. So, where is the surprise that every third or fourth monsoon, Mumbai reels under flooding of the river-reduced-to-nullah or slips on landslides on the hill side.

The question is whether Mumbaikars, nearly 80 per cent of whom are non-locals, will let their cloak of nonchalance slip, and start acting for a city they have all but taken over. True, the city is expected to contribute almost Rs 58,000 crore this fiscal by way of income-tax (personal and corporate) but there seems to be no real effort to improve the city significantly.

"This is because there are very few real stake-holders for this city as most politicians who come and stay in Mumbai have their constituencies in distant regions such as Vidarbha, Marathwada or the Konkan coast. And those who are from the city seem to be happy feathering their own nests," says a State bureaucrat who refused to be named.

This apathy was reflected in the way either the leading corporate houses or the city's own Bollywood stars or many of the dyed-in-the-wool Mumbaikar politicians responded to the crisis. Reliance Energy Ltd, the suburban utility, attracted much ire, as consumers thought they were better off with BSES, the erstwhile electricity supplier to Mumbai suburbs. Reliance Energy's claims that only a few pockets were without electricity a week after supply got disrupted did not find many takers and the company was given notice on Monday by the State government to restart supply in 24 hours.

Meanwhile, there is talk on the streets of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) being slapped with a number of litigations for causing death due to negligence. Many of these suits could specifically target the BMC for leaving open manholes that cost the lives of many, it is learnt.

"There is no accountability in this city. On July 26, people were left to fend for themselves and there were hardly any officials in view. No city administration can leave its citizens to fend for themselves and later cover up, saying we salute the spirits of Mumbaikars," says B. Chacko, who was stuck atop a BEST bus in Kurla for 16 hours on July 26 and is still unable to get a train connection to Coimbatore.

Sure, Mumbai is back to normal on Tuesday, its efforts to be up and running on Monday coming to nought as incessant rain battered the city for 48 hours straight. The city finally got its act together on Monday with the administration taking charge in no uncertain manner.

Though a week late, the government machinery had woken up to the calamity it was facing. But, for the millions of residents, it must have seemed pretty much like in many of the movies made in the city where the polic inevitably turn up after the hero has overpowered the villain.

The villain was still alive but enfeebled as the water levels did not quite rise to last Tuesday's (July 26) levels. The armed forces were seen moving around in flood-prone areas near the Mithi river, but there were no marooned citizens to be saved. It resembled a dry run for the real action that was to follow. Only, in this case, the action was already over.

Today, despite the Met Department's warnings of "heavy to very heavy rains" and educational institutions being closed, office-goers were out in strength. The final word on restoring normality was there for all to see as the dabbawallahs were in actionagain.

Yes, it is getting to be normal in the city as millions of Mumbaikars pile on to their elected mode of transport the suburban trains, suffocating for breath and smiling while toes get crushed and elbows are jammed into midriffs. Normal, as they crowd into the island city like ants trooping into anthills, just because the British chose to build a fort there in 1717, which later got transformed into the central business district.

Certainly, the residents of this remarkable city will not forget the 2005 monsoons in a hurry. Though one cannot put the sunk-by-storm water Mumbai quite on a par with the quake-ravaged Gujarat or the tsunami-hit Tamil Nadu, it often takes a disaster to push a city into makeover mode.

This is borne out by the way Surat transformed itself following plague in 1994; the city now looks quite different, without the dingy by-lanes that characterised the city a decade back. One is not too sure whether Mumbai will take this opportunity to decongest itself as advocated by a number of citizen action groups and try to relocate some of the establishments out of the island city.

According to Mr Arun Mokashi, transportation expert and former World Bank consultant, there is no option but to decongest Mumbai. "The administration can make a beginning by levying tax on offices located in the island city. On the flip side, there can be incentives to those who shift out to Navi Mumbai by offering tax holidays. Also, there has to be high entry tax for vehicles driving into south Mumbai, as is the case in cities like London," he says.

The proponents of decongesting Mumbai wonder why establishments such as Central Railways and Western Railways are headquartered in the city, against more logical locations such as Busaval or Vadodara.

If the State Government were to make the first move by shifting out the Mantralaya and Bombay High Court from the island city, it would then be in a position to ask for the relocation of the likes of the Reserve Bank of India and the Bombay Stock Exchange to the mainland, they say.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 3, 2005)
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