|Mumbai counts the cost of
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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
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
"We estimate the damages to be
worth around a billion dollars but it could be
more," said K Vatsa, secretary for rehabilitation
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
survey of the city Saturday, Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh said he would be releasing $500
million immediately toward improvement of the
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
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
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