It’s that time of the year again, when the monsoon rains pour down on Mumbai, and the city – in keeping with its annual tradition – responds with clogged drains, water-logging, disrupted transport and general chaos.
From Sunday, Mumbai experienced four days of heavy rainfall that inundated its low-lying areas, submerged railway tracks at several points, delayed flights and shut down many schools. City life crawled back to normal on Wednesday evening for most of the city, but not before some dramatic moments.
The northern suburbs of Vasai-Virar faced power cuts for 37 hours, residents began running out of essential food supplies and parts of the region are still water-logged. In Nalasopara, the Indian Army and the National Disaster Response Force had to be called in to rescue nearly 2,000 passengers of a stranded Mumbai-Vadodara train on July 10, with inflated boats ferrying the passengers over the water-logged tracks.
Further north, in Palghar, another rescue operation brought 400 stranded salt pan workers to safety. In the Bombay High Court, a bench of judges slammed Mumbai’s municipal corporation for failing, yet again, to prevent water-logging in the city, particularly on its railway tracks.
Who is to blame for bringing a metropolis of 20 million citizens to a grudging halt every time there is a heavy downpour?
The meterological department said that in the past 20 days alone, Mumbai has already received more than half the season’s rainfall quota. But in a city gifted with its own natural drainage system, heavy rains are hardly the cause of annual water-logging.
As an island city with the sea to its west and a wide creek to its east, Mumbai has always had large swathes of wetlands, marshes and mangrove forests to absorb flood waters during monsoon downpours. It is also a city built on a rich network of natural canals and four rivers to serve as drains.
But decades of indiscriminate reclamation and construction have taken a toll on Mumbai’s natural water percolation systems, and its impact is now increasingly apparent with every monsoon. Disregard for appropriate urban planning led to the disastrous three-day Mumbai floods of July 2005, and 13 years later, the city still refuses to learn its lessons.
A failed drainage project
The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation is India’s richest civic body, with budgets higher than those of some entire states. In the last financial year, the city’s municipal corporation had a budget of Rs 25,141 crore. Despite this, the corporation spends barely 18% of its budget on civic infrastructure, which includes upgrading its sewage and drainage systems to prevent recurring monsoon flooding.
All through the year, Mumbai’s canals, creeks and rivers – the arteries of its natural drainage network – are clogged with silt, garbage and untreated sewage. Before every monsoon, the municipal corporation scrambles to clean up and desilt these waterways, and almost always fails to meet the deadline.
It does not help that the municipal corporation has still not completed the implementation of BRIMSTOWAD – the Brihanmumbai Storm Water Disposal System, a project to revamp Mumbai’s colonial-era drainage system so that it can expand its capacity to carry and pump out rain water. Since 2005, the municipal corporation has budgeted more than Rs 2,500 crore towards accelerating the implementation of BRIMSTOWAD, and some parts of the city are beginning to experience its benefits. But in most of the city’s low-lying areas and slum settlements, citizens are still waiting for a monsoon shower that is not blocked by choked drains.
Trash and silt are not the only things choking Mumbai’s waterways. The biggest catalyst for the city’s self-destruction is concrete, which has been taking up more and more of the city’s surface area over the years, allowing fewer opportunities for rainwater to percolate into the ground and reach natural canals.
Constructions have also steadily encroached upon the many mangrove forests, wetlands and salt pan lands along all the edges of the city. These wetlands serve a crucial ecological function in any city: they serve as a buffer zone for floodwater and rising tide levels during heavy rainfall. By compromising this buffer zone, city and state authorities have compromised the safety of the city, and despite incessant warning by urban planners and ecologists over the years, the civic authorities seem determined to allow the concretisation of Mumbai’s wetlands. In recent years, the state government has been keen to open up 5,400 acres of Mumbai’s salt pan lands for real-estate development.
A river in dire straits
Meanwhile, in the centre of the city, the sorry state of the Mithi river offers proof of the dual impact of both concretisation and water pollution. The Mithi river winds through 15 km of the city from the eastern suburbs to Mahim bay on the western coast, and over the years, it has earned the infamous title of being a “glorified nallah” or sewage drain.
Over several decades, structural encroachments along the river have narrowed its channel and altered its course in some parts of the city. The construction of the Bandra Kurla Complex business district on the wetlands on the riverbank has led to the destruction of a portion of its mangroves and the river itself has shrunk by 50%. Despite this, concretisation of parts of the Mithi’s flood plains continues, putting mangroves at further risk.
In August 2017, the Supreme Court slammed the city authorities for failing to restore the Mithi, while the state Comptroller and Auditor General pulled up the municipal corporation for not setting up sewage treatment plants along the river. The corporation had agreed to set up these plants in 2013 and over the next three years, it spent Rs 1,400 crore for the clean up of the Mithi. That money was not accounted for, and the river is still frequently choked with garbage.
In the same month of August last year, torrential rainfall led to a breakdown of the city, with local trains out of service, traffic almost at a standstill, a building collapse and at least five people’s deaths. As is the case with every such calamity, the city’s working-class residents were the worst affected. In slum after slum, flood-affected residents blamed civic authorities for failing to clean out drains and unclog sewers before the monsoon.
This year’s prospects look no different for Mumbai, given how easily the city was handicapped in the past four days. The question is, will Mumbai finally learn its lesson next year?