In the midst of a pandemic that has infected over 70,000 people in the state, coastal Maharashtra is bracing for Cyclone Nisarga, expected to make landfall north of Mumbai on Wednesday.

Coming close on the heels of Cyclone Amphan which wreaked destruction across coastal West Bengal, Nisarga is being touted as the first cyclone that will affect Mumbai in its recorded history. According to Indian Meteorological Department projections, the cyclone will turn east from the Arabian Sea early on Wednesday and hit the coast of northern Maharashtra and southern Gujarat at a wind speed of up to 120 km per hour.

In preparation, Mumbai and its surrounding districts are on high alert, and ten teams of the National Disaster Response Force have been deployed – three of them in Mumbai. The state government has directed local authorities to evacuate people from coastal, low-lying areas – particularly those living in kachcha or makeshift houses – and move them to relief shelters.

In Mumbai, where several low-lying areas flood every monsoon during bouts of heavy rain, the municipal corporation’s fire and disaster management teams are on alert, hospitals have been directed to keep back-up power supplies ready, and fishing communities have been warned not to venture into the sea at all.

But coastal communities that spoke to in Mumbai claim there has been no move by the civic authorities to evacuate anyone so far. With parts of the coast already reclaimed for the city’s controversial coastal road project, they fear the cyclone will cause heavy flooding and damage to those living by the sea.

Hit by the lockdown already

“We started receiving warning messages about the cyclone from the government three days ago, but there was not much we can do to prepare for it,” said Damodar Tandel, president of the Akhil Maharashtra Macchimar Kriti Samiti, a state-wide association of fish workers. “By then we had already removed our boats from the sea because of the fishing ban.”

Tandel, who lives in a fishing village in Cuffe Parade at the southern tip of Mumbai, was referring to the ban on fishing between April and June every year, to allow fish in the Arabian Sea to spawn. This year’s fishing ban came as an economic blow to millions of fish workers across the coast, since the nationwide lockdown to contain Covid-19 had forced them to stop fishing earlier than expected.

In Worli Koliwada – one of Mumbai’s largest fishing villages – the impact of the lockdown has been much harsher. The area has been one of the major Covid-19 hotspots in the city, and has been sealed as a containment zone through most of the lockdown.

“For two months the police has not let us step out to even buy groceries, so there is no question of being able to get out of Koliwada for evacuation,” said Nitesh Patil, the general secretary of the Nakwa Fishing Society, one of two fishing associations in Worli Koliwada. “If our homes get flooded, I hope the police come in to help us, because they are not letting us go out.”

Throughout the lockdown, said Patil, most residents have had to buy groceries from trucks and vendors that the police and civic authorities have chosen to be allowed in. Now, with the cyclone approaching, residents have stocked up on essentials and pulled up the fishing boats that were still anchored at the jetty. “But nobody from any relief force or the municipality has come to the jetty or to meet us so far,” said Patil.

A Navy team prepares for Cyclone Nisarga. Credit: PTI

Coastal Road troubles

Patil and other environment experts are certain that homes in Worli Koliwada will be inundated during the cyclone, largely because of the reclamation of the Worli coast for the Mumbai Coastal Road.

A Rs 14,000-crore project, the Coastal Road has been planned as a series of tunnels and flyovers connecting all of Mumbai’s western coast, from Marine Drive in the south to Borivali in the north. The project has been challenged in court by activists, coastal residents and fish workers for ecological damage it is likely to cause to the city’s coast and the alleged lack of environmental clearances required for reclaiming large portions of the sea.

In December 2019, however, the Supreme Court stayed a Bombay High Court order and allowed the Maharashtra government and Mumbai civic body to continue with construction and reclamation work.

“The coastal road construction has been going on throughout the lockdown in the name of ‘essential services’, but how can this be an essential service?” said Patil.

Sarita Fernandes, a coastal policy researcher from Mumbai, points out the rocky shore that characterised the Worli coast served as a natural buffer zone, protecting coastal residents from flooding during the rains. “Now that this shore has been reclaimed, Worli will be the worst hit area in all of Mumbai during the cyclone,” said Fernandes. “They have already suffered due to Covid, and now with the coastal road, the cyclone will be very detrimental to Worli.”