Author : Ramanath Jha

Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Jul 12, 2019
The consequences of reckless urban planning in Mumbai — earlier intermittent — have now aggravated.
Mumbai’s annual tryst with deluge

Torrential rains in Mumbai followed by a few days of mayhem on account of inundation of parts of the city has now become an annual feature. So have the floods of anger, collapse of walls and buildings, human deaths, loss of productivity and other collective and individual human tragedies that follow it. Given this yearly onslaught with unfailing regularity, and no real perceptible improvement in tackling the disaster by authorities, should Mumbaikars reconcile to their aquatic fate or rather continue tilting at windmills? Attempting to find a reasonable answer to this question is what the endeavour of this article is.

Let us begin by accepting that Mumbai is most likely to continue to get bouts of unusually heavy rainfall in a very short period of time. This is a consequence of two invariables that now seem to be firmly established. First, Mumbai is set in the Konkan region. Committees that have studied its past instances of deluge have concluded that its location in a high rainfall region makes very heavy rainfall a common feature. “An analysis of the probability of such extreme events and their expected return period based on historical data going back to 1886 for Colaba and 1957 for Santacruz reveals that in any year, the probability of 24 hours rainfall exceeding 200 mm is 50% for Santacruz and 33% for Colaba,” concluded an earlier report of the Kelkar Committee. Secondly, the effects of climate change are likely to make the situation worse. While changes in rainfall are as yet difficult to predict, scientists broadly agree that a warmer atmosphere will lead to a larger volume of precipitation and regions that are already wet will get wetter and will be visited by fewer, more intense events.

Whereas climate change is overall a more recent phenomenon, Mumbai’s location in a high rainfall region is known for scores of decades. However, it can be stated safely that Mumbai’s vulnerabilities resulting from high rainfall have largely been ignored in the manner in which Mumbai has gone about building itself. The casual disregard for environmental safeguards and construction with gay abandon have been on-going for decades. The consequences of such recklessness were surfacing intermittently for a long time but now have become more aggravated. Mumbai today is almost completely built and whatever open land is left is being built with greater frenzy by the construction industry. The financial capital’s insatiable greed for more money and its famed opulence became a further cause of its own destruction as it got converted as refuge to the nation’s migrating poor, aided by those that sought to build their vote banks. The demographic density of Mumbai rose exponentially and human beings lived on every piece of land in every nook and corner. Any wall or building, therefore, that fell had to fall on the ubiquitous homo sapiens.

 It can be stated safely that Mumbai’s vulnerabilities resulting from high rainfall have largely been ignored in the manner in which Mumbai has gone about building itself. The casual disregard for environmental safeguards and construction with gay abandon have been ongoing for decades.

The mass of poor migrants, while contributing to building the economy of the city, and many times the victims of Mumbai’s greed, wreaked their own havoc on Mumbai. Every kind of water outlet, right from the rivers to mangroves to nallas and drains became the slumdwellers’ chosen destinations for living and dumping. Clogged culverts, encroached rivers, heavily-silted nallas and a dysfunctional storm water system left no outlet for rain water. It is evident that if human beings swarm a city beyond the ability of its geography to support that population, then land gets displaced from other vital functions and is diverted to supporting activities of the living population. In a scenario such as this, water is the casualty as there is no egress left for it. But the genius of water helps it find its own level and space. Unfortunately, its decisions have run counter to human convenience and safety.

The above narration emphatically establishes that since Mumbai is over-populated and over-greedy, and can neither be disciplined nor be reined in by decision-makers, a radical and comprehensive solution to the problem does not seem to be in sight. An additional serious impediment standing in the way of problem resolution is the question of finances and the trade-off between investment for rescue from floods and investment in other developmental avenues of the city. A host of past committees that have studied the problem have recommended exhaustive solutions, but have not cared to go into the finances their recommendations would entail for implementation. Neither have they suggested with any finality how far such investments would turn the tide of water woes.

The long list of alleviation measures suggested by the last committee set up post the deluge of 2005, comprises fresh works, reclamation and restoration jobs, regulatory steps and the erection of new governance mechanisms. The first group of works includes the preparation of contour maps, a fresh survey of the SWD (storm water drainage) network, implementation of BRIMSTOWAD (Brihanmumbai Stormwater Disposal System) and upgradation of its standards in the next phase, completion of cross-drainage works and augmentation of pumping and gated structures as well as special measures for the protection of the airport including a review of the hydraulic and structural design of the airport runway and taxiway bridge. The second set of jobs includes removal of obstruction to storm water drains, restoration of four waterways that stand seriously reduced in capacity, removal of blockages caused by floating debris, restoration of the nalla system that stands constricted due to encroachments, effective garbage handling, desilting and preservation of holding ponds. Regulatory measures include a ban on plastics and prevention of further encroachments.

Mumbai is over-populated and over-greedy, and since neither can be disciplined nor be reined in by decision-makers, a radical and comprehensive solution to the problem does not seem to be in sight.

The recommended governance mechanisms include the establishment of urban hydrology units in MCGM and MMRDA (Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority), a river management authority, strengthening of early warning system, unified control, public address system and infrastructure for air and water rescue operations. As a parting suggestion, the last committee sweepingly recommended that all past reports be immediately implemented.

Undoubtedly, the city is now faced with a very tall order. Unfinished jobs carried from the past appears much too daunting. They require huge sum of money. Yet the government’s confidence that their execution will accomplish ‘mission impossible’, given the poor quality of governance in the city is highly shaky. Some of the removal and restoration jobs are certain to face tough political opposition. Shifting out populations that have encroached upon nallas and waterways appears herculean. There is also no certainty about how much rain could fall in a short time period of time. In extreme instances, even an improved water evacuation system may not withstand the test of a gigantic deluge. Since, Mumbai also figures among cities threatened by a rising sea level, there are too many imponderables that cloud the judgment of the government.

In these circumstances, the authorities seem to have prioritised certain works out of the entire basket and are executing them and leaving the others alone for a future day. This means that they are reconciled to a few days of mayhem and hope that with some luck they will be able to live through it. Given this situation, the citizens have a choice to make. They could fight this out through petitioning the authorities, taking them to court or use any other avenue available to them to coax the authorities to be more comprehensive in their tackling of floods. In the event of such endeavours failing, they may prepare to bear the brunt each year on certain days and take steps to safeguard themselves and their dear ones. Back to the saying — “Every man for himself and God for us all.”

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Ramanath Jha

Ramanath Jha

Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He works on urbanisation — urban sustainability, urban governance and urban planning. Dr. Jha belongs ...

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