On 29 August, the city of Mumbai received 331.4 mm of rain. It was the largest amount of rain received by the city in a single day since 26 July, 2015, when it got 944 mm. The deluge brought the city to its knees, resulting in the deaths of 14 people in and around Mumbai.
In the days following the deluge, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) faced citizens' ire for "shoddy" work, with many holding the civic body responsible for submerged rail tracks and streets.
Ajoy Mehta, an IAS officer of 1984 batch, has been serving as the municipal commissioner since April 2015. As municipal chief, much of the criticism was directed at him. And he knew that if the rains returned to the city again, his administration couldn't afford to be caught unprepared.
He didn't have to wait very long for this test. On 20 September, the rains returned. But this time, the BMC had a team of 35,000 well-prepared employees. Among them were four additional commissioners, 12 deputy municipal commissioners and 30 assistant commissioners. Lessons were learnt from the 29 August deluge. Many loopholes had been fixed, and Mumbai was ready this time. So, though the city received over 300 mm of rain in a 24-hour period, trains and buses kept running, and normal life went on uninterrupted.
In an exclusive interview, Mehta tells Firstpost about how the BMC managed to save Mumbai from the brunt of the damage on Tuesday.
How did your team ensure Mumbai didn't come to a standstill on Tuesday, like it did on 29 August?
We had done our planning well in time. In the first week of September, I called upon all assistant commissioners and deputy commissioners, and asked them about the problems in their local wards. We then selected those problems which were of critical importance, and started fixing these. There are other, long-term issues which will be fixed over a six-month period.
Instead of external consultants, you're taking help from employees and experts within BMC. Why?
We aren't asking for advice from external consultants. We have experts and field workers within the organisation. They are all aware of the issues, and know the spots prone to chronic flooding. So we started fixing these problems. The results are here for everybody to see. And this will continue in the days to come. BMC personnel will remain on guard in the city. Leaves of all officers have been cancelled.
As compared to 29 August, the city actually received more rainfall on 20 September. How did you ensure there wasn't any flooding?
The rainfall was unprecedented this year. There was about 333 mm rain on 29 August, and 352 mm rain on 20 September. There was also high tide on both occasions. What worked in our favour, however, was the low tide — it was 2.6 metres on 29 August, while it was only 0.6 metres on 20 September. This meant a lot of excess water immediately went into the sea. And because water levels receded quickly on account of low tide, the Mithi river didn't overflow.
On our part, we were better prepared. Over 35,000 BMC employees were on the roads. We had learnt our lessons from 29/8 and we knew which loopholes need fixing. We also received an early alert from the met department. We were warned of heavy rainfall, although the actual magnitude of rain is never easy to predict.
Was there better coordination between the different agencies?
As compared to 29/8, the different agencies worked far more smoothly this time. The railways, traffic police, BEST, power companies, Coast Guard and IMD all worked towards the same end. High ranking officials from BEST, traffic and power companies were all personally present in the BMC disaster control room, which meant immediate and effective coordination. This coordination was one of the key things missing on 29/8. Going forward, we will chart out an action plan and inform the agencies involved about the gaps. We will also ask them to submit a report on how they intend to fill those gaps.
Waste disposal and open manholes remain major concerns in Mumbai. How do you plan to tackle these?
Many Mumbaikars continue throwing thermocol, plastic bottles, even furniture into the nullahs. This is our primary concern, and it's even worse than plastic bags finding their way into the garbage. Just this week, in under three hours, we recovered 24 tonnes of garbage from Irla nullah in Juhu. I personally visited all the pumping stations, and ensured there were senior officers on the field.
As for open manholes, it is also a concern for us. But the covers we install keep getting stolen. We are planning to install theft-proof manhole covers soon.
Tell us about the upgraded BMC disaster control room
Since the 2005 deluge, BMC has improved its disaster prevention significantly. We have a 5,000 sq.metre room today, with state-of-the-art machinery, communication facility, wireless, and other sources of information, which get us updates from all over Mumbai and the state. This control room was working 24x7, but we were still helpless about rumours. The National Disaster Response Force was also asked to be on high alert.
Will you be filing a complaint with the Mumbai Police against those spreading rumours of a cyclone?
There were rumours about a cyclone hitting Mumbai, and around 2 pm, our emergency helpline number 1916 started ringing continuously. I was myself in the control room this time. Thanks to social media, especially WhatsApp, rumours about the cyclone spread across the city in a matter of seconds. This caused large-scale panic. We had to hold a press conference to tell the people that this was just a rumour and there is no cyclone heading towards Mumbai. We took to TV and social media to spread our own messages.
Later, I wrote to the joint commissioner of police, and said we want people to be booked for spreading rumours. Not just regarding the cyclone, but also about the Bandra-Worli sea-link being forced to shut.
Published Date: Sep 22, 2017 08:05 am | Updated Date: Sep 22, 2017 08:05 am