With the onset of another round of flooding in the city, Mumbaikars are being painfully reminded that despite fantasies about the city becoming a home-grown Shanghai, there are several factors working against any such denouement. One of the biggest is the abysmal lack of infrastructure, which was once again revealed with what was virtually the season's first heavy rains, but no means such a torrential downpour. The only reason that it didn't cause even greater dislocation than it did was that it took place over a week-end, when many offices and schools were closed. Even the High Court has passed strictures against the authorities, directing them to avoid such calamities next year.
Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh - who has now returned home from the US after one of his and his colleagues' countless 'study tours' - has once again blamed the rain gods. The new Municipal Commissioner has made the extraordinary statement that Mumbai can only cope with 40 mm of rain an hour at present; even when all current works are completed, this capacity will only rise to 55 mm. Since there are no caps on how much rain will fall on the country's commercial capital, this can be translated to mean that citizens should expect to be swamped some days every monsoon.
When Mumbai reeled under the onslaught of 944 mm of rain on July 26, 2005 (the rainfall was less than half as much this time), the Municipal Commissioner at the time, Johny Joseph, came under severe criticism, along with Deshmukh, for mismanaging the entire situation. Joseph had served as the Relief Commissioner in Latur after the 1993 earthquake and was for a few months entrusted with drafting a disaster management scheme for the entire state, which was funded by the World Bank.
On that fateful day two years ago, there was precious little sign that the two had learned anything from that salutary exercise. Deshmukh promptly declared a two-day holiday - precisely at a time when the officials were most sorely needed for relief for the thousands stranded in the metropolis. This time, the administration took no chances and ordered all officials to remain at their seats for 24 hours, but even that did make any major improvement in the situation.
To everyone's surprise, Uddhav Thackeray, the Sena leader's son - the party controls the corporation - is blaming the rampant legal and illegal construction of buildings, without any thought to providing infrastructure for Mumbai's perennial deluges. There is an anomaly here: while the Sena dominates among the councillors, the municipal administration is appointed by the state government, with which it is at loggerheads at present. While the government might allot or dereserve large plots, it is the corporation which issues 'no objection' completion certificates and is thus also to blame for the urban chaos.
He is hitting the nail on the head when he speculates about calling a halt to all construction in the city till the adequate infrastructure is provided. Concerned citizens - who include architects, planners, activists and trade unionists - have made a similar demand. The exceptions could be redevelopment schemes for slums - provided, once again, that these are genuine and not merely land scams, such as the current redevelopment of 'Asia's largest slum', Dharavi, with a floor-space index (the proportion of built-up area to size of a plot) trebled to 4 as a special concession - and for old, dilapidated 'cessed' buildings. The very fact that the Mayor's similar call for a halt to all construction provoked a strong denial from the Chief Minister speaks for itself.
In the older, island city, there are a few locations which are perennially flooded but, for the most part, this does not dislocate the north-south traffic axes. It is in the suburbs that the biggest impact is felt. It is also in the suburbs where the most rampant construction and redevelopment of old buildings is taking place, with the active connivance of both the state government and corporation.
For instance, the entire cotton mill precinct of Parel-Lalbaug is witnessing dizzying high-rises competing with each other for their place in the sky. But no one, least of all the builders, has paid any thought to green spaces or proper drainage. Another reason why Mumbai and other metropolises are witnessing such devastating floods is that office and residential complexes are paving over what was once open ground, which served to absorb the monsoon's excesses. Property developers too seem singularly ostrich-like in not realising that in the long run, they will suffer if people living and working in such complexes find that they are gravely inconvenienced and no longer attracted to the area.
The Mayor has set up a committee to advise on what steps to take. The first need, say many citizens, is a halt to all construction, especially that being planned on salt pans and other vast stretches which served as nature's sponges. As it is, the diversion of the Mithi river for the airport and creation of the second central business district of Bandra-Kurla on mangroves, wreaked havoc two years ago. This is where the island city connects to the rest of the peninsula and if heavy rain coincides with high tides and submerges the tracks on both the Western and Central Railways - as they were within inches of doing that year - it will literally sever the city in two, causing untold hardship.
The argument that the city is too poor to undertake remedial measures simply will not wash. For one thing, with the computerisation of octroi, the municipal corporation has plugged the enormous leaks in its main source of revenue and is cash-rich today.
Besides, the fact is that the costs of coping with such damage are very much higher than that of providing the proper infrastructure. Last time, as many as 1100 domestic and international flights were cancelled when the Mithi broke its banks, which is disastrous for a city which wants to emulate Shanghai. Broadband Internet and phone cables are another casualty, this time as well. Thus, as in many other cases when it comes to preserving and protecting the environment, the cost of not doing so is actually much greater. These costs are borne by citizens or private agencies like IT or insurance companies, and not the government, but they amount to a huge financial loss all the same.