Published On : Sat, Jun 20th, 2015

Why Mumbai drowns whenever there is a deluge?

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Yesterday, Friday 19th June, heavy rains fell on Mumbai and predictably, the city almost drowned. One could see the usual visuals of Mumbaikars wading through waist deep water, submerged cars , even buses!, and stalled local trains.

On talks shows Anchors were asking Shiv Sena and BJP politicians who run the very rich BMC, and have done so for over 20 years now, what happens to the Rs. 32,000 crores that they collect in taxes from Mumbai citizens and establishments every year? This makes Mumbai the richest city not just in India, but almost the whole world. Why is that money not being utilized to ‘stop this routine flooding?’

They got the question completely wrong – because it is actually the answer and not the question at all! It is because BMC can keep collecting such mega money in taxes that Mumbai keeps flooding!

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What was Mumbai after all when it came into existence; or rather, came to the notice of the British? It was a bunch of fishermen’s  hamlets. According to wikipedia,Mumbai is built on what was once an archipelago of seven islands: Bombay Island,Parel, Mazagaon, Mahim, Colaba, Worli, and Old Woman’s Island (also known as Little Colaba). Mumbai even today, is geographically a peninsula that juts out into the Arabian sea. The low lying lands of these ‘islands’ were protected from high tides by the abundant mangroves that dotted the coastal areas.  People that lived in ‘Mumbadevi’ as it was called then, lived off the treasures of the sea, since they were mostly fishermen and women. Thus, land, water and the people inhabiting the land lived in harmony with each other.

From, then to circa 2000, Bombay has come a long way. In fact, the city’s  woes began from the day it became Bombain  from Mumbadevi.  Bombain, in Portugese means the ‘small bay’ it was the perfect bay off Mumbai that first attracted the Portugese who made it an important place culturally and religiously. Most of the famous Bombay churches are relics not of the British, but the Portugese era.  By and by, the British came to own India and they eventually made Bombay their financial capital. They also chose to build their mammoth textile mills in the city, which brought people from Konkan and other places in thousands as mill workers. Bombay grew in leaps and bounds then on, and the pace only accelerated after independence.  Apart from other business, even Indian entertainment industry flourished here adding to the allure and glamour of Bombay. Where there is business, people migrate to, and where there are people, there are Builders. Space was therefore always scarce. Almost 50 years ago, some genius first thought of ‘reclaiming’ land from the sea – then it became a trend. The islands were connected, and Mumbai started increasing longitudinally and sideways too with mangroves being cut down and more and more coastal area ‘claimed’. Old timers report that Mumbai first ended at Byculla – Bandra was a distant suburb. Now it extends all the way to Borivili and Malad, which was a distant, sleepy little fishing village – parts of it still are!

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It is this combination of business, industry, commerce, builders and people that has made Mumbai the richest city of India. And the more people come in, the more builders’ get to build, the more malls there are and more markets, more money will come in. Which politician and which bureaucrat doesn’t want that money? As long as Mumbai is seen as this ‘milking cow’ its problems will only increase, not diminish or get solved.

The devastating floods of 2005 that took hundreds of lives in Mumbai – some estimates put it at 1000 even – did not happen suddenly. It took decades and decades of natural habitat being tampered with and the mega tons of pollution and garbage that the city generates for it to happen.

The following is a very interesting excerpt from an article in the British newspaper Guardian : ‘Since 2013, Narayanan Vasudevan, the head of Mumbai’s Mangrove Cell and a marine biologist by training, has been charged with managing and protecting 5,469 hectares of this vital natural infrastructure in Mumbai and the suburban reaches of Navi Mumbai. Sophisticated satellite mapping has made the task easier by identifying the location and extent of mangrove ecosystems now designated as protected forestland. But it also reveals how frustratingly futile the task can be in a land-hungry megacity, by constantly throwing up glimpses of parking lots, temples and garbage dumps popping up where mangroves used to be. “Half the mangroves are on private land,” says Vasudevan, “so we have no control over them. Also, Mumbai is a developing city, and all the debris from buildings being knocked down needs to go somewhere.”

The problem is that these debris dumps lay the ground for illegal reclamation of land, in flagrant violation of a lawrestricting construction on coastal areas. Earlier this year, a few environmental groups had brought a number of these violations to the Bombay High Court’s attention, and the court directed Vasudevan to visit the site. The violations he recorded in

his report included shrinking lakes and wetlands, as well as reclaimed land upon which parking lots, temples, slums and even a road had been constructed. In the report, Vasudevan notes: “[Some] areas are witnessing destruction of coastal wetlands at a feverish pitch through incessant dumping of debris. Several new apartment complexes have cropped up, indicating the seriousness of the threat from real estate developers.”

Stalin Dayanand from Vanashakti, an environmental group that petitioned at the High Court, thinks that nothing will change so long as affordable housing is not constructed for migrants, who crowd into low-lying areas near deltas and on sinking coasts, and so long as the developer-politician nexus continues.He accuses politicians and local administrators of “regularising environmental violations by builders”, and of stalling the release of a contour map that would demarcate high-tide zones where construction would be hazardous. “The map was submitted six months ago, they’re not going to let it get through to the public until it’s pointless, and there are multi-storeyed monsters everywhere,” he says.

“This year, the tide breached the Gateway of India. It’s a wake-up call. But you can wake up someone only if they’re sleeping, not if they’re pretending to sleep.The Corporation is too busy making money to notice.”’

– Sunita Mudaliar
  Associate Editor