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Opinion | Why Mumbai Rains Should Not be a National Story

Did politicization kill the activism in Mumbaikars?

Zoya Mateen |

Updated:July 11, 2018, 11:08 AM IST
Opinion | Why Mumbai Rains Should Not be a National Story
A woman walking through a water logged street, reacts as a truck driving past creates a wave of ripples prior to drenching her during monsoon rains in Mumbai. (Image: AP)
I have been sporadically familiar with a thing called ‘Bombay monsoons’ in bouts and spells during recurrent family vacations. I grew up hearing my father’s endless ‘qissey’ (tales) - memories of experiencing 28 years of rains in this complex city that he recalls with nostalgic pride.

But to many perhaps less fortunate or less romantic, monsoon in the maximum city is an experience that often lacks poetic graces.

Every year, monsoons descend upon the coastal city of Bombay with a magnificent indifference toward the passions and trials of humans.

Imploding roads, shriveled plastic clogging the drainage network, leaking trains, crumbling buildings and the smell of catastrophe brewing in the sea characterize the city's rains as people momentarily amass amid and away from swathes of flooded water.

Every monsoon, half of the cityscape is inundated, people are stranded and trains and taxis come to a halt, much like the city's administration.

It starts like a charade:  The mornings are dedicated to a sense of gushing adulation for the spectacle of Mumbai rains.

By noon, pictures of waterlogging start accumulating on social media feeds. Slowly the jokes trickle in, the comical wryness.

The jokes transform into solidarity and reports of people braving the rain and  swimming home, about the ‘indomitable spirit of Mumbai’ – as if the person walking has any other choice - flood the media (excuse the heartless choice of word).

By even-fall, a well oiled media-machinery is ready to pick up 'Mumbai rains' as the topic of evening debates. Panelists scream, politicians hurl allegations and members of civil society point out problems that everyone already knew.

The next day is a follow up on the events of the previous, with news reports centering around tales of compassion and human kindness - of  Mumbaikars providing shelter to stranded people, serving them tea and pakodas.

Story after story is filed in the ‘National’ column of newspapers and websites, tweet after tweet is dedicated to a blow-by-blow account of the ‘situation’ on ground. slowly, the focus shifts from the breakdown of the city machinery to how people are reacting to the breakdown.

However, much like the stubborn Mumbai rains that cause the same damage year after year, the city itself refuses to change in the face of adversity.

This year too, the season began with the spectacular collapse of a pedestrian bridge on a crucial railway line in Andheri, causing injuries and overall urban paralysis.

The incident came barely a year after the stampede on a foot over-bridge at Elphinstone Road station claimed 20 lives last monsoon.

The city of dreams, Mumbai, continues to attract a large number of people looking for opportunities, for magic- with the population rising from 11.9 million in 2001 to 18.4 million a decade later.

But urban managers, led by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, have just not invested enough in new infrastructure and have done a very shoddy job of maintaining the old, despite having a trillion dollar stock exchange and a lush budget.

The recurrent disasters involving infrastructure are proof of the indifference among policymakers to the city’s needs, even as they speak of a ‘global standard’ of living.

One is forced to wonder if after the passage of a dozen years, Mumbai is ready to to meet a disaster such as the July 2005 flooding which was caused by 99.4 cm of rain in a 24-hour period.

If Maharashtra has to achieve higher rates of economic growth and touch the ambitious 10% that Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis desires, Mumbai’s infrastructural planning needs to be in the hands of an empowered custodian who can achieve the cooperation of all urban agencies. A draconian task, to say the least.

Beyond the political wrangling on poor management, extreme weather calamities become an important trigger for valuable research on developing better mitigation and managing systems.

Researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai have, for instance, provided pathways for nearly 450 sq. km of the city to better prepare for monsoonal floods, using the worst-case scenario of a dozen years ago as the baseline. However, the situation reflects upon the government’s dormancy towards adopting any of the proposed measures.

According to one estimate, the city’s Mithi River is so heavily blocked by debris and garbage, that it has lost about 60% of its catchment to development. The setting up of a Supreme Court monitoring committee has not helped much.

The committee is supposed to take resolute measures to stop the release of sewage and industrial chemicals into the Mithi, and retrieve lost mangroves in the eastern fringes and drain paths in the north-west of the city that have lost much of their capacity owing to unplanned development.

Even though a cleaner river connected to functional drainage can aid in the speedy removal of flood waters, and improve the environment, there are other basic challenges which are particularly pertinent for the less affluent residents. In a 2015 study, the World Bank found that half of the poor did not consider moving out of flood-prone areas, because of the uncertainty of living in a new place with severe social disruptions and reduced access to education and health facilities.

There is a dire need of an inquiry into whether the reforms proposed over time that range from clearing drainage systems to the elimination of land encroachments in order to create holding ponds for water harvesting, have gained any traction.

Mumbai represents a tiny percentage of votes in Maharashtra with its political clout being a lot less than the high profile of the city. And this is just one facet of the problem, the largest being the apathy and disregard of its own people.

It is likely that the citizens of Mumbai have slowly been conditioned to be desensitized towards their own problems. ‘C’est la vie’, after all.

If the Mumbaikars thronged the streets in masses for even a day, would authorities be compelled to take notice? Maybe and maybe not.

However, social slacktivism seems to be the only form of dissent in the country.

Sharing helpline numbers on twitter and celebrating the grit of the city against an adversity is important. Perhaps not as much as addressing the problem in its face, though.

There's always another storm. It's the way the world works. Snowstorms, rainstorms, windstorms, sandstorms, and firestorms. Some are fierce and others are small. One has to deal with each one separately, but also keep an eye on what’s brewing for tomorrow.

And so it goes, the rains lash the city of Mumbai, one national story after another, one headline at a time.
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