Sumati Mulya (32), a housewife in Vasai, is nervous every time she hears the sound of rain, or when she watches the news about Kerala floods on the television. “Rain now brings only panic, of knowing I should pick up the children and run out,” she says.
Nearly 50 days after a very heavy spell of rain over days led to the far suburbs of Vasai-Virar being almost marooned with the rail line and highway under water, the Mulya family is still waiting for their household items to dry.
“I threw away almost all the wooden furniture. But the seepage on the walls is deep and it’s not going away,” she says. The family had renovated the house, located on the ground floor in a society on Ambadi Road, in the heart of the city, hardly a year ago. The flooding between July 9 and 12 wrecked havoc on their home, finances and plans.
Over four days in July, the region received an average of nearly 800 mm of rain, said municipal authorities. This combined with various factors, including clogged drains, blocked natural exitways for water and the high tide, led to flooding of the three neighbouring townships of Vasai, Virar and Nallasopara, 50 km to 70 km from Mumbai. There was no electricity and water for over a week in parts, and residents were stranded on terraces and upper floors while vehicles were damaged beyond repair.
While Vishal Nagar, a low-lying area, had seen water levels grow slowly, the other regions had no idea that the flood waters would rise dramatically. The Mulyas’ neighbours, the Joshis, had to escape from the window. “The water rushed in and it was till my chest. I tried to hold on to some articles, but the cylinder overturned and gas started leaking. We couldn’t go out of the door, the water was gushing in, so we opened the window and jumped out,” Manjusha Joshi (44) recounts. The house they bought a few months ago is badly damaged. “The cost of repairing everything is too much. We have been sleeping on mats, all our bedding had to be thrown away,” she says.
Residents now say the flooding can be traced to one major epicentre, the bridge over the back-waters near Sativali in Vasai East. “Drains and nullahs from heavily populated Nallasopara and Vasai flow into a murky pool in Sativali. The water then eventually flows out into the Naigaon and Bhayandar creek. However, the bridge constructed in the middle of it led to water flowing back into the cities,” says Samir Vartak, an environmental activist. “It did rain incessantly, but the situation wouldn’t have been so dire if the bridge was not there.”
The bridge was demolished in July by the Vasai Virar Municipal Corporation after local Shiv Sena leader Rajaram Babar protested. “The order to demolish the bridge was issued a year earlier. But only after the cities flooded did they do the work. After that, the water slowly started receding,” Babar says.
VVMC Commissioner Satish Lokhande said the bridge was built by private builders. “We demolished the bridge because it was blocking the water,” he adds. One of the worst hit in the flooding were the 400-odd residents of Manikpur Mithagar, which lies in the opposite direction from the bridge, around 15 km away. Two communities of Gharats and Patels live and work in the saltpans in the region.
“I moved here in 1961, as a schoolboy. We are from Daman and the sea flows as if in our veins. But I had never seen water like how it rushed in on the night of July 9,” says Parshuram Patel, the village priest. The villagers were rescued the next day by the NDRF, in boats.
“Rescue was not the problem, coming back was. I, along with a few others, half-swam and half-waded through neck deep water a couple of days later. But the damage was done. The entire village collectively threw out kilos of rice, several beds and other items. Our furniture was destroyed, we kept what we could as firewood. The water took everything else,” he says. Only the village temple survived, the villagers claim. Hardly a stone’s throw away, Indu Shambhre’s house was completely submerged. “We keep our goats on an elevated pen. The pen was higher than the house, and even that was submerged. Five of my goats died. Dogs who could swim escaped. Those that were too tired drowned. It took me years to save the money to buy my goats. Now, I am now a pauper again,” she says.
Residents believe the worst is over, but activists and local leaders claim that if the situation is not dealt with properly, the floods could recur. Shiv Sena leader and local activist Milind Chavhan says, “It was a man-made situation. We had been warning the authorities for almost a year. But no one heard us.” He adds that the bridge caused the blockage and floods in the towns, while the highways flooded because the saltpan lands are being filled up. “Virar flooded because the drains and underground nullahs were never cleaned. Even now, the municipal corporation is doing nothing.”
Some of those affected are still awaiting compensation. “We lost our furniture, our equipment, even our utensils. A woman living on the third floor took pity and let us live with her for seven days,” says Lakshmi Kannojia (30), a mother of two. Her husband Aravind (32) runs a power laundry shop out of their ground floor house in Vasai. “I filled all forms for compensation. It has been more than 45 days and no money has come. They said that they will only give money for household damages. But even that hasn’t come,” he says.
The municipal authorities say work on resolving grievances is underway. “We have already surveyed the heavily waterlogged areas. The experts from IIT have started their work. They are holding a public hearing where locals can discuss their problems from September 4 to 11. We have acquired heavy-duty pumps and other machinery that will help us clean the nullahs and underground drainage. In a month, I have managed this. Everything else is in progress, we will distribute the relief sums soon,” municipal chief Satish Lokhande says.
Activists are, however, not happy. “This is akin to putting a band aid where a surgery is needed,” Milind Chavhan says.
Residents of the satellite townships are afraid every time electric supply is shut or rains increase to anything more than a pitter-patter. Archana Devlekar, a resident of Ambadi Road, says, “The plight of Kerala brought back memories of our difficulties. They had a much more serious situation, but that could happen here too. I am scared of the rains, I never thought that to be possible.”