After Vasai-Virar witnessed its worst-ever flood, the municipality has the gargantuan task of cleaning up and putting in place the long-needed infrastructure for the dormitory town. Commissioner of Vasai Virar Municipal Corporation (VVMC) Satish Lokhande speaks to Gargi Verma about the task at hand.
What caused flooding at this scale this year?
There are many reasons. The immediate reason was the abnormal rainfall, combined with high-tide. It rained more than 800 mm in three days. Normally, water fills up in low-lying areas, especially in Nallasopara, Diwanman, Surne, Virat Nagar. However, the flooding was unprecedented this year, so we checked the background a bit. The entire area of Vasai West, Nallasopara, Evershine City and Anchole, Sativali and even the salt pans drains into railway culvert 78. There’s a lot of pressure on Culvert 78. There was a barrier under the bridge on this route. We removed that barrier and another obstruction. But we Googled and saw pictures where the normal width of the channels meant to drain water has been reduced by mangroves. The outdated drainage system didn’t work, as it is not made to handle such quantity of water. There is no integrated drainage system as well. Unauthorised construction is also one of the reasons. But the root cause is that the city was never built in a planned manner.
Why did water not recede even after three to five days?
The massive flooding happened on about 20 per cent of our total area and almost all of those places are low-lying regions with chronic waterlogging issues. However, generally, the water drains off via stormwater drains. However, due to high-tide, even if we pumped out water, the tide would come in. So, for a couple of days some places had to waterlog. It is because of old infrastructure and the severity of the rain.
Are there any modern technological or conservation-related methods that could be adopted for long-term planning of flood-prone low-lying regions?
I have already requested IIT and NEERI experts. They are going to conduct a study on the existing infrastructure, the size of catchment and the rainfall pattern. They will look at existing rainfall pattern and past data, marking the catchment area, the reasons for waterlogging and the chronically-waterlogged areas, along with a masterplan for both creeks marking the boundary of Virar, Nallasopara, Navghar and Manikpur, and proposed infrastructure according to the existing DPR. We have requested these agencies to present a report and an idea of the expenditure to overhaul the existing infrastructure over the next six months. Once we have funds, we can start work.
The railways had claimed blockage of drains had led to inundation for long hours. Is pre-monsoon desilting of drainage systems an annual exercise in Vasai-Virar? How do you think it can be upgraded in the light of what happened?
There are six-seven culverts in railway area where our water drains. They were not cleaned. I am not playing any blame game. But I had a meeting with the general manager of the Railways and we are in the process of cleaning the drains. As temporary measures, we requested the railway and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation to give us dredging machines to clean the culverts.
Is there a fund crunch in smaller municipalities around Mumbai, where generating own revenues may not be as easy? Do smaller satellite towns around the city require more grants from the state government?
Government intervention is necessary at this point. We have only one Sewage Treatment Plant when we need seven. That, too, was finished after we got the funding. So, we need funds if we want to make bigger changes. Since we are a new corporation, revenue sources are yet to be tapped. Major source is property tax but over seven lakh buildings are assessed at the old rates. The villagers are opposing any tax hike. Some properties are yet to be assessed. We are in the process of doing a proper tax revision. Once it is done, it will fetch us Rs 500 crore against the current Rs 150 crore. We have a Rs 1,700-crore budget. For this infrastructure, we require a huge expenditure, for which the government will have to give us grants. We just don’t have the money.
Would you agree that Vasai-Virar flooding was a failure of long-term urban planning, an absence of adequate monitoring of construction on wetlands, mangrove lands, low-lying salt pan lands and unchecked urbanisation?
Unauthorised construction is a concern. But that, singlehandedly, didn’t cause the flood. I joined just two years ago. CIDCO was the planning authority 20 years ago. There was a lot of unauthorised construction then and before that. People have been living there for 20 years. We tried to stop the unauthorised construction… We have demolished all new illegal constructions and encroachments, I can assure you. We have demolished 8,000 structures. But it is not enough and we are working on it. We are learning from our experience. I am the first IAS officer here. I can’t comment on what happened before me… I have come up with plans. People have painted us in a bad picture. The city has greenery, gardens, transport and comparative cleanliness. It will grow with years. With time, it will become better. We needed advance planning and upgraded infrastructure at least five years ago, which never happened. Hopefully, it will happen soon.
Public trust in the municipality is at an all-time low. What will the VVMC do to improve the situation?
People will always blame the corporation. But we have limitations too. We do our best, but people need to share responsibility. That gives us more time to focus on other issues. If drains were clogged, it was because plastic waste was thrown into them. It is a slow process, we understand. We also understand that we will be blamed, whatever we do. We are the basic amenity provider and public has the right to complain if things go wrong. But we are working towards improvement, which will reflect soon.