Bracing for the downpour

Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation says that it is better prepared for monsoons this time.

Written by Alison Saldanha , Tanushree Venkatraman , Anjali Lukose | Mumbai | Updated: May 16, 2014 7:39:28 pm
Slow pace of pre-monsoon desilting work on storm water drains is a major concern. Slow pace of pre-monsoon desilting work on storm water drains is a major concern.


Every year, the cash-rich BMC is usually in a tearing hurry to meet its deadline of May 31 to finish all monsoon related works. And each year, without fail, the civic body promises to do a better job in the forthcoming year by starting ahead of time in January, instead of March.

While disaster management experts have largely commended the civic body for its state-of-the-art disaster response system, Mumbai still falls short, mainly due to its incomplete and ineffective pre-monsoon preparation.

“Our response time for rescue operations in a disaster during the monsoons is severely delayed due to traffic problems. Waterlogging in different parts of the city sets us back significantly if there is any emergency during peak-hour traffic,” said deputy chief fire officer P S Rahangdale.

But in a promising trend this year, BMC Commissioner Sitaram Kunte has been conducting monsoon preparedness meetings since March itself (instead of April-end), to ensure that gaps in BMC’s disaster management, identified during the previous monsoon, are plugged before the onset of rains this year. There are, however, several areas for improvement, say experts.

One of the main but lesser-known reasons for BMC’s failure in managing previous monsoons has been poor coordination between various government agencies, NGOs, private bodies and the corporation itself. During monsoons, BMC coordinates with roughly 20 government agencies to mitigate flooding, waterlogging, and other rain-related problems.

Last year, mis-communication between the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) and BMC has been largely blamed for the city’s ill-preparedness, as many parts were inundated for days when the rains arrived on June 9. While the civic chief criticised IMD for failing to issue a proper weather forecast warning in advance, IMD maintained it had issued a heavy rainfall warning to BMC’s disaster control room by fax and SMS.

“The BMC should station at least one assistant engineer and medical officer at the control room 24×7. This will help when there are various kinds of emergencies as engineers and medical officers are equipped with the necessary know-how to manage the situation,” said I C Sisodiya, former chief vigilance officer and disaster management expert at BMC, who was also part of the N V Merani committee, which was formed after the 26/11 terror attack, to look at disaster management.

The two agencies now claim to have cleared this problem with a proper warning system in place. “We have decided to make additional efforts to ensure warnings reach the civic body on time. We will not only message but also call senior administrative officials of the level of the municipal commissioner or additional municipal commissioner, to warn in case of onset of rainfall, forecasts of ‘heavy to very heavy rainfall’, besides other regular warnings,” said K S Hosalikar, deputy director-general of meteorology, IMD Mumbai.

Following disaster preparedness meetings in March, IMD will now also provide rainfall warning and wind speeds at different elevations for running metro and monorail lines. “We have been asked to provide rainfall warnings and important information about wind speed at elevations for the monorail as it may not be able to run at very high wind speeds, which are sometimes experienced during monsoon,” Hosalikar said.

The Mumbai Traffic Police, the agency most affected by the civic body’s ill-preparedness, has also been in talks with the corporation over mitigation of perceived traffic problems during the monsoon season.“We have met with BMC officials and have asked them to stop all roadworks by May 31. We have also requested them to complete the rehabilitation on storm water drains by this deadline. Thereafter, we have asked BMC to stop all digging work till the end of the monsoon season,” said B K Upadhyay, joint commissioner of traffic police.

While the civic body has committed to this deadline, traffic officials complained that BMC has not yet begun work on their request for re-painting and highlighting road markings. “The zebra crossings and stop signs in various parts of Mumbai have faded or are almost invisible. We need the road markings so that if there is waterlogging or a road cave-in or a large pothole in any area, causing bottlenecks, we can at least divert the vehicles using these road markers. In their absence, vehicles move in a haphazard manner as there is no road disciple and this impacts our efforts to manage traffic,” said Upadhyay.

Commenting on the general pace of BMC’s road works, he said, “They are very slow. We are not happy with them.”

In the last few years, BMC has earned a reputation for itself for its delayed road works. In fact, tenders for resurfacing 967 major and minor roads for the years 2013-14 and 2014-15 were cleared only in February 2014, while their work orders were finally issued in April.

Till date, the corporation has finished work on barely 132 of 515 roads, on which resurfacing work has begun leaving citizens inconvenienced as works on 383 roads remain incomplete. “We will stop all road work by May 20 after bringing them to a safe stage. I am confident that our pre-monsoon road repair works will be completed by then. As per the contract norms, the road works, which have not been completed, will continue after the monsoon season. We are taking every precaution to ensure citizens are not affected by the work,” said additional municipal commissioner SVR Srinivas.

Tenders for road works carried out during the monsoon season, such as pothole-filling contracts, and contracts for manning jet-patcher machines for potholes, are yet to be placed before the standing committee for approval. In the pothole-filling contract, companies have bid over 50 per cent higher than the base price, but due to lack of time and options, the standing committee is likely to approve the contract without an inquiry. Last year, over 38,500 pothole complaints were registered on BMC’s pothole-tracking website, This year, the civic body intends to bring down this number by half.

“We have introduced stricter parameters for the contractors to ensure quality work this monsoon . We will ensure that we respond to the complaints on time and the work is completed in 48 hours,” said R A Pawar, chief engineer, roads department. Upadhyay said, “It is difficult to comment on how unfinished road works will affect the traffic during the monsoons, but we are drawing up a plan for traffic diversion so that there is minimum impact on commuters.”

A major problem which the NDMA fails to adequately address is the “standard operating procedure” before and after the collapse of fatal dilapidated buildings. In the last one year alone, Mumbai has witnessed several building collapses. According to data released by BMC in March 2014, there are 593 C-1 category buildings (extremely dilapidated and dangerous, requiring immediate evacuation and demolition), which include civic-owned, state government-owned and privately-owned structures. Of these, barely 169 buildings have been vacated.

In the C-2 category of buildings, which imply those structures that can undergo extensive repair and need not be demolished, BMC has, so far, identified 817 buildings, of which repairs have been carried out on 262 only. As more structural audits are carried out, civic officials believe that the number of dilapidated structures classified as C-1 and C-2 will only increase.

Civic officials say the main problem lies in evicting or evacuating residents from privately-owned dilapidated buildings as there is no law which empowers BMC to forcibly remove people from a dilapidated structures. While the residents are given a seven-day notice to vacate the structures under section 354 of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation Act, 1888, as part of pre-monsoon safety activity, there is no follow-up action provided under the law for these structures.

“Very often, the tenants or occupants of the structures are involved in a legal battle with the owner or landlord over redevelopment of the structure and refuse to vacate till an agreement is reached. This is a major risk to their own lives and the lives of those living near the structure,” the BMC commissioner had said after his tour of 41 such C-1 category structures in early May this year.

The corporation has now petitioned the Bombay High Court and has proposed guidelines for tackling such situations. The matter has been adjourned to June, by which time monsoons are expected to arrive, and have asked the state government, the civic body and the Mumbai police to work in tandem, to deliberate the policy in accordance with the law.

The slow pace of pre-monsoon desilting work on storm water drains is also a major concern. With less than a month for monsoons to hit the city, the storm water drains (SWD) department has completed only 56.6 per cent of the desilting work in the major nullhas of the city.

According to the latest status report (up to May 8), 54.29 per cent work has been completed in the eastern suburbs, while 57.81 per cent of desilting work is over in the western suburbs. The progress of desilting of major and minor nullhas in the city is only 57.10 per cent. The civic body started the work of nallah-desilting in April along with Mithi river desilting work. Up to May 8, the progress of Mithi river desilting has been 58.99 per cent.

“Pre-monsoon works, be it desilting or road repairs, must begin in January, so that between March 30 and April 15, the work is completed and civic officers can undertake vigilance checks to see if the work has been conducted properly. A system must be in place were sub-engineers check the contractors’ work daily and file a report with the municipal commissioner and senior officials.

Thereafter, a separate vigilance team should inspect the work followed by the civic chief’s final review. Unfortunately, the system today is restricted to a few occasional site visits by the Mayor and senior officers to select sites. Work completion reports are largely only on paper,” said Sisodiya.

Since 2010, to increase drainage capacity, BMC has undertaken the work of rehabilitating the century-old storm water drains in the island city. Of about 50 km, BMC till date has completed about 30 km of rehabilitation. But drainage capacity remains at 25 mm rainfall per hour. The suburbs, with a relatively newer drainage system, can handle 50 mm rainfall per hour.

“If the island city faces rainfall of over 25 mm per hour and if it happens to be high tide, there will be flooding. It is not possible to widen the drains because almost double the space is required, which is not easily available in a city like Mumbai. Even in the suburbs, often the areas experience rainfall of more than 50 mm per hour. We feel the pumping stations under the Rs 3000 crore Brihanmumbai Storm Water Drains (BRIMSTOWAD) project will effectively solve the drainage problem,” said chief engineer (SWD), L S Vhatkar.

Under BRIMSTOWAD, which was planned in 1993, BMC has managed to commission only two out of eight pumping stations.
Meanwhile, BMC has identified around 200 flooding spots, of which 40 flooding spots are chronic. For these, the corporation has said that 191 de-watering pumps, manned by two persons each, will be put in place to prevent inundation by May 24. An additional 24 pumps, one for each ward, will be kept on stand-by.

The IMD has also informed BMC that the city will have 21 high-tide days during the four months of the monsoon season, from June to September. Coupled with heavy rains, these days could especially be difficult for Mumbai with inevitable waterlogging and flooding issues.

Still, to the relief of citizens, the meteorological department has assured that the height of the waves will not exceed five meters. Beach safety, however, would continue to remain an issue as the civic standing committee has not yet approved of a Rs 2.90-crore tender proposal that was submitted earlier this month by the Mumbai Fire Brigade (MFB).

Besides its 13 permanent lifeguards who are stationed at Mumbai’s six beaches that are open for public, MFB will employ 34 contractual lifeguards and an additional 38 lifeguards specially for the monsoon. These lifeguards are given special training by the fire brigade in swimming, first-aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), used to revive drowning victims.

“We will also have National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) team of 10 personnel for each of the six beaches. Last year, we managed to get through the entire season without a single drowning incident. While the beach safety equipments will further upgrade our protection, until these arrive, we will carry on with the same plan to protect the coast, as it was very effective,” Rahangdale said.

As per the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) guidelines to prevent and mitigate urban floods, the authority has recommended widening, and deepening of rivers in around the urban areas. After the 2005 deluge, the corporation and the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) has been working on the Mithi river for the last eight years and has completed 95 per cent of the widening and deepening work.

But BMC has completed constructing only 45 per cent of the retaining wall, with around 11 km of the river yet to be secured by the wall, according to the latest status report of the Mithi River Development and Protection Authority (MRDPA). The retaining wall will enable channeling of the river, prevent encroachments and dumping of debris.

Work on other rivers – Oshiwara, Poisar and Dahisar — lags behind. “We have not yet begun any work on the Oshiwara and Dahisar rivers, but desilting and civil works are on at the Poisar rive,” Vhatkar said. The guidelines have further recommended studying the contour maps of the urban area to understand the landscape and the catchment areas therein.

About six months ago, BMC, finally heeding this recommendation, has now introduced the concept of catchment engineering in its SWD department. In this, besides a detailed study of Mumbai’s 122 catchment areas, BMC has reorganised its plan for SWD engineers, shifting them from administrative ward-based divisions to catchment area-based divisions.

— With inputs from Sanyukta Dharmadhikari

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