A scene from the deluge of July 26, 2005
A scene from the deluge of July 26, 2005

A one-minute clip of a bullock cart towing a car through a flooded Bombay street in 1932 – when Dadar and Bandra were at the edges of the city -- went viral last week as the first monsoon showers submerged the city. Strangely, the BJP did not blame Nehru but the Shiv Sena, and for all the wrong reasons. Come to think of it, this is the time for literally gutter politics.

Over the last 50 years, Mumbai’s population has risen from 30 lakhs to two crores. Water supply has kept up, thanks to new dams more than 100 km away but not much brain has been spent on the drain. The annual flooding is treated as an act of god. Not only was drainage ignored, slums and buildings came up in low-lying areas and even on reclaimed ponds and marshes, to house the nearly seven-fold increase in population. The land area of the city has miraculously increased by almost 50 sq km in less than three decades, since 1991.

July 26, 2005

The first reality check came on July 26, 2005, when more than 400 Mumbai residents perished in a deluge caused by the heaviest rainfall the city had witnessed in a century. That day, Mumbai received 944 mm of rain whereas the century-old storm-water drainage system of the city could cope with only 25mm of rain a day. Who can forget the photograph of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray being evacuated from his Kala Nagar bungalow in a boat when the Mithi river broke its banks.

Ever since, mini pumping stations and valves to prevent tidal water from entering the drains prevented flooding at Kala Nagar although it is a low-lying area, made worse by the elevated BKC next door. However, on June 9, the very first day of the monsoon, housing societies in Kala Nagar had knee-deep water in ground-floor flats. It turned out that the pumps were not working and the sea valves had not been closed.

As if this embarrassment was not enough, the widespread waterlogging in the city belied Mayor Kishori Pednekar’s claim that ‘‘107 per cent of desilting work has been completed in all the drains in the city’’. And, as usual, the BMC and the Mumbai Metropolitan and Region Development Authority (MMRDA) passed the Kala Nagar buck to each other. This is the state of rain-readiness in the CM’s locality.

Another viral video showed two women falling, one by one, into an open manhole in a Bhandup footpath. Since it was only waist- deep, they were not swallowed, like Dr Deepak Amarapurkar in August 2017, whose body was found days after the top gastroenterologist fell into an open manhole near Elphinstone Road railway station. And would you believe it: The India Meteorological Department’s Doppler radar – which warns us about cloud formation, rain and thunderstorms – is out of order and likely to remain defunct for at least the next two months. Also, no one knows what happened to all the rain gauges that were to be set up across the city.

Integrated flood warning system

How does all this square up with the fact that Mumbai is the second Indian city, after Chennai, to get its own integrated flood warning system, run by the BMC and the State Disaster Management Authority? CM Uddhav Thackeray had better ensure that such systems work if he wants to stay afloat in the Mumbai civic polls, less than a year away. Every year, the BMC claims it is ready to tackle 350 to 450mm of rain in a day but the existing drains are not ready even for 50mm, while the pumping stations, crucial for preventing sea water from entering the drains during high tide and for pumping out storm water into the sea, often malfunction in the face of “more than heavy rainfall”.

The Madhav Chitale committee that probed the 26/7 deluge recommended that Mumbai’s rivers – there are four of them – and natural drains be widened and dredged, that encroachment on their banks be removed, that contour maps be made and flood-risk zones be demarcated and that construction in such zones be regulated, that new underground storm-water drains be laid with pumping stations, that mangroves be protected, that the municipal corporation be consulted before any construction in low-lying areas…It was only after 26/7 that the BMC took up the Brimstowad project (Brihanmumbai StormWater Disposal System), which was conceptualised in 1993 but rejected for being too costly.

The Chitale committee had proposed setting up river development authorities for each of Mumbai’s four rivers – Dahisar, Poisar, Oshiwara and Mithi -- but it has been done only in the case of Mithi. Here too, the grand plans for river rejuvenation and beautification of the banks were reduced to pre-monsoon de-silting. While most of Chitale’s recommendations were accepted, the one to demarcate flood-risk zones and to regulate construction in them remained on paper because of opposition from the builder lobby. Only half the projects initiated on the basis of the committee’s recommendations have been completed.

New flooding spots in 2021

Meanwhile, 14 new flooding spots have emerged this year, taking the tally to 405, up from 386 last year and 273 the year before it. Countries such as China are seeking to counter urban flooding through the concept of sponge cities, which are structured to absorb and capture rainwater. In 2015, China selected 16 pilot sponge cities which had measures such as rooftop gardens, wetlands for rainwater storage and permeable pavements. Mumbai, instead, is eyeing one of the last open spaces left in the city, the salt pan lands. The MMRDA is looking at seven such plots, totalling 300 acres between Kanjurmarg and Mulund for development. Now, these are the issues that the BJP ought to take up in their gutter politics.

The city’s blind spot, though, is the threat of submergence by the sea which is rising at the rate of 1.7mm per year along the Indian coast. Mumbai was marked as one of the coastal cities at risk of being submerged by 2050 in a study released in 2019 by Climate Central, a U S non-profit news organisation comprising scientists and journalists.

The news hit the front page but there has been hardly any discussion on it. What can one expect from Maharashtra which has no town planners in its urban development bodies and no hydrologists in its water resources Department. However, there are still some scientists left in our scientific institutions and they say that the entire Mumbai will not be submerged by 2050 but there could be prolonged flooding in low-lying areas. After all, South Mumbai’s Pydhonie (which translates to ‘foot wash’ in Marathi), was so named because the feet got wet in this stretch while crossing from one island to another at low tide.

Experts say it is time we create a 20-year climate change mitigation plan for Mumbai that will be linked to the city’s development plan and civic budget. And that can happen only when voters tell the politicians that their bread and butter depends on the gutter.

The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. He welcomes feedback on anilsinghjournalist@gmail.com

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