Another Mumbai monsoon tragedy has yielded another high-level inquiry, this time to probe the circumstances in which at least 26 Mumbaikars died when a wall along a suburban hillock collapsed on two shanty colonies. A technical experts’ committee will also probe if the quality of construction and design of the wall along the slope was appropriate. Meanwhile, the first week of rains left thousands with flooded and damaged homes and vehicles. The suburban railway and bus transportation systems are counting their losses, running into crores, from flood water ingress. Thousands of underground water tanks in suburban residential colonies are contaminated, and municipal authorities are bracing for an impending round of viral and water-borne diseases. Incidentally, even as rains battered the financial capital earlier this week, a CAG report tabled in the Maharashtra state legislature slammed agencies for incomplete works on flood preparedness.
After every major tragedy in Mumbai, inquiry reports point to blinkered urban planning and moribund municipal governance. Meanwhile, the tiresome trope about Mumbai’s resilience almost appears to be its undoing — the city that never stops returns to business as usual and long-term corrective measures are forgotten. At least two near-stampedes on stations on the suburban railway system were reported this past week, almost as if 23 Mumbaikars headed to work never died in the September 2017 Elphinstone Road station stampede. After the 2005 deluge that claimed over 700 lives in the city after a 944 mm downpour in a single day, not only were large parts of a fact-finding committee’s recommendations never implemented, but 14 years and several hundred crores later, a project to rejuvenate the Mithi River, Mumbai’s mother drainage system, remains incomplete. Faced with citizens’ anger, top officials and the Shiv Sena’s heir apparent Aaditya Thackeray parried, saying this week’s record rainfall must be looked at in the context of climate change. But very recent lessons on sustainable development are already a hazy memory. Just last monsoon, the marooning of satellite towns, Vasai-Virar, following a three-day deluge suggested that the devastating results of Mumbai’s development trajectory were playing out in a suburb, not in a distant future. The peculiarity of Vasai-Virar’s relatively inexpensive housing market is the widespread construction on flood plains, reclaimed wetlands and former salt pan lands — all buffers against flooding.
Corruption and incompetence in infrastructure planning and governance cannot be brushed under the climate change carpet. Various agencies responsible for Mumbai’s ramshackle systems must do both — fix accountability for the dereliction and simultaneously mandate scientific sustainability studies to inform all development planning, zoning initiatives, real estate development and mass transit projects.