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Flooding in Mumbai: Let’s call city Venice of the East

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to rename Mumbai, at least during the monsoon months, the Venice of the East?

That, of course, could be an insult to that European city. When Mumbai cannot be another Singapore or a Shanghai as policy makers dreamt of, it should grab the part-time new identity.

It can introduce the gondolas as monsoon substitute for the ubiquitous black and yellow cabs. Come monsoons, the city is flooded, bringing it halt every now and then, like it has since yesterday.

AP

AP

The city could not replace the slums, improve the public transport, make it the new international financial centre, enhance quality of life, et al, to even start being a Singapore or Shanghai or even their pale shadows.

So opportunistically, it can take to an annual seasonal rechristening.

Of course, it would be nowhere as elegant as that combo of 118 islands separated by canals and linked by bridges. Mumbai is a meld of seven islands constituting the Island Mumbai and another seven which is today’s Mumbai suburbs.

But it would still be a good chance to take. When a crisis cannot be coped with, despite the familiarity of the annual flooding, it is better to make a virtue of failed governance.

There are good reasons for it.

It is just the start of the monsoon season and Mumbai, one of India’s ‘great’ cities, is already reeling, shamefully disrupted. It makes one wonder if it could even be called a modern urban space.

Why does Mumbai, India’s ‘great city’, get so easily flooded?

This has to be asked and someone or the other who manages the city would have to stand up and explain the failure to prevent it. Especially, because flooding is predictably frequent.

It is as simple as the axiom that monsoon equals inundation.

It’s not a good thing for a modern city or with claims to that moniker, where a day’s bandh is calculated as so many crore of rupees lost. It is a business-like city but rains disrupt it; even the famed resilience of the city cannot overcome the losses due to the rain-related disruption.

This afternoon, news television announced at least ten places inundated, which, curiously enough are the same spots which suffer every year.

The city has known nothing else.

There are a variety of reasons for this annual infliction, one of course being the monsoon itself. It was only once in recent memory that the city recorded a cloudburst of 644 mm in 12 hours, on July 25, 2005, but it is not spared any year.

Curiously enough, it is on the first few days of the monsoon itself, not anywhere near that 26/7 disaster. Imagine the implications had it been a few more centimetres in the past three days.

One reason for the annual inundation is that Mumbai is built on what were once marshy lands after reclaiming them and is only nominally higher than the sea surface. Any rains during the high tide ensure that water does not flow out to the sea but pushes it back. That keeps the water on the streets.

That makes it a combination of factors, manmade and natural, but yet another is that Mumbai is scarcely ever ready for a monsoon. It is related to the non-clearance of drains. The contractors do not do their work, the contacts are issued late, and accumulations of silt remain.

Saying ‘silt’ would amount to misrepresentation, however, for the drains are choked by garbage, mostly plastic and debris, callously thrown around by the citizens and to which the civic body turns a Nelson’s eye. Dredging them out is not easy, but it has to be done but is not.

The regular, predictable flooding of streets and railway tracks during monsoons is a testimony to this hard reality but who cares? It would seem that any claims of clearance of drains, doled out in percentage points, may be just claims. The civic belief is that once it rained, no one can measure the claims. The flood helps the annual cover-up.

It is natural that a low-lying city would even have the railway tracks lower than the mean sea level (MSL) by a few feet, enough to compound the best of the hardy daily commuters’ woes. Raising them would be both hugely expensive and logistically near impossible. There is no elbow room on the space through which the tracks run.

Even the BRIMSTOWAD – Brihan Mumbai Storm Water Drain project – costing Rs 1,200 crore in 2007, and aimed at improving the flood mitigating capability - if it had any, that is – is nowhere near completion and the indications are it may be delayed further. It was conceived in 1993 and by now, just about half the work has been done. The estimates are it would cost above Rs 4,000 crore.

This BRIMSTOWAD did not include the widening of the Mithi river which the city had forgotten about, and treated it as a mere large drain. The 26/7 floods told us exactly what it was. The clearing and widening it has been so slow that a heavy rain could well repeat the embarrassment of another flood.

It is patent that the city does not know how to make it proof against the usual seasonal downpours, so normal to it. Any claim of being prepared for the monsoon from the city government is only an annual sham. Such claims rain as predictably.