Bombay’s Blame Game: On the Recent Floods

Originally published as an editorial in DNA (Daily News and Analysis), Mumbai, 5 August 2005.

Who is really to blame for the floods and chaos in Mumbai this week? The monsoon downpour last week was not strictly a natural disaster. It was a man-made crisis, and the public have spent the past week searching for explanations and solutions to this human disaster. The answers provided have ranged from the opportunistic to misinformed, and almost all are lacking in a longer term perspective on institutions, particularly those concerned with urban infrastructure in Mumbai.

The latest assertion, by environmentalists and activists opposed to the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, is that the overflowing of the polluted Mithi River can be solely blamed on reclamations for the Sea Link and the Bandra-Kurla Complex. While this is plausible, the claim is being made without any scientific or ecological evidence to substantiate their arguments about the effects of reclamation. But then where are the real experts? In a city which boasts some of the nation’s finest institutes of technology — insular enclaves of global expertise which rarely interact with the city’s public problems — very few academics or qualified engineers are to be found raising their voices.

What of politicians and bureaucrats? Disaster relief is a golden opportunity for political leaders to shore up their reputations, to play politics while appearing above it. Consider Rudy Giuliani’s live calls to the media from the New York Mayor’s Office hours after 9/11, and his constant and reassuring presence on television in the days and weeks afterwards, constantly answering questions and providing information. However in Mumbai, the average person’s desire for symbols and faces to assuage their grief and address their complaints were conspicuously absent. On Torrential Tuesday, the BMC shut its offices early, and its engineers and officers swam home, while politicians didn’t emerge into the limelight until days after the calamity. So for lack of faces, the papers featured two very different men on their front pages, both tottering on inflatable boats amidst the waterlogged lanes of Kalina — Police Commissioner A.N. Roy and Shiv Sena chief Balasaheb Thackeray — one on evacuation, the other on a rescue mission.

With officials absent and information scant, the media let loose many wild myths in place of hard facts, such as that the city’s drainage system was built by the British a hundred years ago and has not been upgraded since. This claim, repeated over and over on a national news channel last week, is baseless. The most serious flooding happened in the suburbs — which were either sparsely populated hinterlands or unreclaimed swamps and scrub in colonial times. Since suburbanisation began in the late sixties, storm water drains and infrastructure have indeed been developed north of Bandra and Sion — however clogged, encroached, and dysfunctional they are today (and to the credit of Victorian engineering, the post-colonial Island City, with its large underground pipes, drained more efficiently than the suburbs).

Unable to source information under the pressures of covering the crisis, the media often resorted to commonplace myths about the city rather than getting the story straight. For instance, not a single newspaper or channel has yet covered in detail the Brihanmumbai Storm Water Drainage Project (BRIMSTOWAD), a major infrastructure investment which has been stalled for more than a decade because of the state’s inability to satisfy World Bank loan conditions.

For the public of the city, the monsoon flooding has provided an impetus to action, which could result in much wider changes in governance and our everyday life. It is not often in history that a natural or human disaster prompts wide-ranging institutional reforms. But often the most sweeping changes happen almost by accident. The plague epidemic in Bombay in the 1890s, which prompted an exodus of half the city’s population and the demolition of most of the inner city, gave birth to the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) at the turn of the century. The BIT acquired lands, built roads, parcelled out plots, and laid the foundations for land and housing markets on which the modern city operates. The origin of such wide-ranging reforms, and the political will to achieve them, was not in some lofty vision plan, or in the public spirit of Bombay’s prominent citizens. The BIT originated in the paranoid fear of the city’s elites of pestilence and disease spreading to their bungalows from poorly ventilated and overcrowded slums in the inner city. After ruthless demolitions of tenements and seizure of lands in the name of public health, the BIT planned and developed most of what we still recognise as the Island City. Crisis gave birth to change, and transformed the city in the decades that followed.

Long-term responses to disasters are often improvised, unaware of the historical script they may be following. In addition to the colonial legacy of roads, pipes and sewers laid down by the British, we have also inherited and are replaying a century-old drama of authoritarian responses to urban crises initiated by the BIT. The political responses also follow a familiar script. Earlier this week, Fali Nariman made an eloquent plea in the Rajya Sabha for a constitutional amendment to make Mumbai into a Union Territory. This predictably stirred the pot of urban-rural, rich-poor, and English-Marathi divisions in the house, quickly seized on by Pramod Mahajan. Both of these positions belong in history’s dustbin. Centralising authority in a new Union Territory Government, which would presumably replace the present administration by the BMC and Maharashtra Government, will not bring about any serious changes.

Better implementation of existing laws already on the books, of which most people remain unaware, is a more practical and effective solution. The Development Control Rules (DCR) which monitor and steer local planning and development are routinely violated and overriden by builders and politicians, through dereserving plots earmarked for open space or infrastructure. The abstract numbers game of floor space indices (FSI) and transferable development rights (TDR) which regulate construction across the city are calculated without regard to local infrastructure, environment, and densities.

The 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments on local self-governance and decentralisation have not been implemented in Mumbai or most cities, and municipal corporators and political parties have actively prevented the formation of non-party ward committees in the past five years in Mumbai. Ward committees would have been a much more effective mechanism for immediate relief during the floods, and a persistent watchdog on the local corporators and ward officers before and after the disaster. The media does not usually cover such longer-term issues of laws and institutions that govern our everday lives. Rather than pleading with government to take more control of our lives through creating a new City State or Union Territory bureaucracy, there are many more small but sweeping changes which we must ask for at the local level. Otherwise we are all sunk.