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    South Asia
     Aug 2, 2005
Mumbai counts the cost of deluge
By Sandhya Srinivasan

MUMBAI - After authorities counted 420 dead in rain-triggered floods and an estimated billions of dollars worth of losses in damaged property and stalled rail, air and road traffic over the week, Mumbai's citizenry has begun questioning frenetic construction in India's main commercial hub and port city.

Stagnating for more than half a century under a state-controlled economy, Mumbai is a city that is in a hurry to catch up with other world metropolises - Shanghai for example. "Shanghai is a benchmark," explained Vilasrao Deshmukh, chief minister of western Maharashtra state of which Mumbai is the capital.

Last week, unchecked construction in a city that came up on a cluster of islands in the Arabian Sea combined with an apparently failed Disaster Management Plan have revealed the vulnerabilities of this city of 14 million people that critics say has been truly "Shanghaied" by its leaders.

By Sunday, battered citizenry had recovered sufficiently to organize demonstrations in the still driving rain and rail against civic authorities for complete inaction in issuing warnings or mounting timely rescue operations that could have saved people from drowning in their own cars.

Vir Sanghvi, editor of the widely circulated Hindustan Times, summed up the mood in a stinging editorial in the Sunday edition of the daily saying: "Let's forget all the Manhattan crap. Let's bury all this Shanghai hype. In neither of those cities would Tuesday's downpour have led to so many deaths and so much suffering."

More importantly, Sanghvi said it was time to "tell our greedy builders and our rapacious developers where to get off" and also "make our politicians and bureaucrats accountable for the rape of our city".

"What is the point of spending crores [tens of millions] on developing an office complex when you can't spend a fraction of the money to ensure good drainage and an infrastructure that does not collapse so completely?"

The anger was understandable. Mumbai's hardy citizens have learned to live with annual floods during the heavy rains of the monsoon season, but no one could remember a time when major road arteries turned into waterways, leaving tens of thousands of commuters stranded in their offices.

Mumbai's famed suburban rail system, which carries an average of 8 million passengers a day, ground to a halt with entire networks of track disappearing under swirling water and its fleet of 3,500 buses turned into islands on which people clambered for safety.

Thousands of commuters, school children among them, trudged home in pitch darkness and did not complain of a failed electricity supply after learning that many of the deaths had occurred from electricity leaking into the flood waters.

"I left the suburban commercial center at Bandra-Kurla on Tuesday afternoon and consider myself lucky to have reached my apartment in the northern suburb of Borivili 24 hours later - with help from local people," says B Hema, a chartered accountant who had to be rescued from a bus roof.

She and six other women spent the night in the loft of a warehouse with filthy neck-high water and carcasses of dead animals swirling around them. "There was no support from any government person, not even a traffic policeman," Hema said, shivering as she recounted the horror.

Telephone lines went down and also cellphone systems as a result of massive water logging around the transmission towers or because of network congestion.

Through that chaos and confusion, civic authorities - in the news this year for ruthlessly bulldozing slums and rendering some 400,000 people homeless so skyscrapers could grow on the land - were conspicuous for their absence.

"Where is the municipal commissioner? Where is the health officer? If they are in their offices, their presence is not making any difference on the ground," said Leena Joshi of Apnalaya, a voluntary agency that works on health issues among slum-dwellers close to city's center.

True, the floods were caused by Mumbai receiving a record 94 centimeters of rainfall within 24 hours starting Tuesday afternoon, but the city's waterways and creeks are capable of handling worse, except for the spate of construction activity and the even-greater amount of rubbish that is now being chucked into them daily.

If the government finally issued orders to stop construction it was only so that the trucks carrying bricks, cement and steel could be diverted to ferry away tons of debris and bloated animal carcasses. "We need the extra trucks," civic official Satish Shinde said.

Living conditions in Mumbai's northern suburbs were already squalid because shanty towns and congested residential apartments compete for space with thousands of buffaloes, goats and other livestock that were drowned by the floods. Disposing off the rotting carcasses became a priority because of the danger of epidemics they posed.

"We estimate the damages to be worth around a billion dollars but it could be more," said K Vatsa, secretary for rehabilitation in Mumbai.

The worst hit were the slum dwellers whose homes were razed earlier this year and now live in temporary shelters. But there was no sympathy for the displaced people, and state water resource minister Ajit Pawar actually called for fresh demolition drives saying the slums were responsible for the flooding.

"Pawar's statement is shocking and indicative of not just callousness or ignorance but a conspiracy to promote further eviction of the poor and grab the land," said Medha Patkar, the internationally known social activist who has toured the worst affected parts of the city.

"Everybody, media to the ministers, blames slum-dwellers for blocked drains, but the municipal engineers, after preliminary surveys, have acknowledged that the real cause is large-scale construction activity, which should not have been undertaken without first providing for adequate drainage," Patkar said.

As the blame-game picks up, attention is being drawn to a Disaster Management Plan (DMP), drawn up in 2003 for the city with World Bank support. It took into account travel patterns, population and other Mumbai peculiarities.

The plan envisaged augmentation of drainage, corridors for public transport, an emergency public information system and wireless communication among police, fire brigade, hospitals, the municipality and the transport system.

Officials admit privately that the DMP had failed. When they met in April, May and June this year, what was discussed was mostly the drought situation in Maharashtra. "We did not discuss preparations for the monsoons," said a DMP official who asked not to be identified.

City planners have long warned that storm drains, built more than a century ago, were getting choked by garbage and construction debris. The city's municipal commissioner, Johny Joseph, said that a $3-billion upgrade plan has been placed before the central government in New Delhi.

Following a survey of the city Saturday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he would be releasing $500 million immediately toward improvement of the drainage system.

But pending that, construction has been going on in full-swing and, ironically, on Monday, 24 hours before disaster struck, chief minister Deshmukh announced that areas designated as "no development zones" were to be thrown open to "100% foreign direct investment".

All too visibly, entire hills have been excavated to build highrises and massive buildings have sprouted up along the coastal regulation zone where no construction is permitted.

(Inter Press Service)

Mumbai struggles to catch up with Shanghai (Mar 16, '05)


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