Fwd: Mumbai blame game
- Begin forwarded message:
> From: Mayraj Fahim <fmayraj@...>
> Date: August 31, 2005 8:58:00 AM EDT
> To: imran@...
> Subject: Mumbai blame game
> EPW Commentary
> August 20, 2005
> Mumbai Floods: The Blame Game Begins
> The worst floods in Mumbai's memory has triggered off a blame game.
> While the slum-dwellers have been blamed for their illegal
> constructions, it is the trio comprising the political class, the
> developers and builder lobby as well as the corporate sector that is
> largely to blame. For long, town planning has been skewed in favour of
> more buildings and concrete infrastructure with the result, as so
> crucially revealed by the recent disaster, that the more urgent issue
> of repairing and modernising the city's outdated drainage system has
> been neglected.
> Vidyadhar Date
> The recent floods in Mumbai spared no one; nature’s destructive forces
> wrought equal havoc on the powerful and the weak alike. Thus Shiv Sena
> chief Bal Thackeray had to be evacuated from his posh bungalow in
> Bandra (east) by his sainiks using a makeshift fishing boat, others in
> the neighbouring slum colonies and elsewhere were equally helpless.
> Nearly 600 people were washed away, some died of exhaustion after
> rescuing others. Thackeray went to live with his nephew Raj, a Sena
> leader, in Dadar while son Uddhav, executive president of the party,
> chose to seek refuge in a five-star hotel.
> Geographically, Bal Thackeray’s residence, ‘Matoshri’, is close to the
> ‘epicentre’ of the tragedy. The party he founded, the Shiv Sena, has
> been in power in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) for
> several years now and therefore was ideally placed to help stave the
> more disastrous consequences evoked by the floods. The Mithi river
> meets the Mahim creek only a few hundred metres from Bal Thackeray’s
> house. Over the years the river, that makes up the lifeline for the
> drainage system in the city’s northern suburbs, has been strangulated
> systematically by officialdom and builders. The heavy flooding of July
> 26 meant that the river could not carry away the excess rainwater; the
> result was that the floodwaters spread over several sq kms and
> inundated numerous slum colonies.
> A River’s Long Neglect
> The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) has its
> office just behind the residence of Thackeray. Far from taking steps
> to avert the disaster, the MMRDA has actually had an active role in
> compounding the tragedy. Over the last few months it has reduced the
> space for drainage along the Western Express highway as the ‘nullahs’
> (rivulet acting as drainage source) have given way to highway
> widening. The charge has been made by the BMC, itself keen to counter
> charges against it, but the MMRDA has denied it.
> The highway widening project, designed to reduce commuting time
> between south Mumbai and the airport, was part of Mumbai Urban
> Infrastructure Project (MUTP).
> But experts had consistently warned against the narrowing of drainage
> nullahs along the expressway that runs from Bandra to Borivili onto
> the outskirts of Mumbai. The Mithi river’s mouth near the Mahim creek
> had already seen a narrowing to facilitate the construction of the
> planned Bandra-Worli bridge across the sea to ensure faster movement
> of motor traffic. The futility of such a project such as the
> Bandra-Worli sea link was also exposed when the Bandra flyover that
> spread over a distance of 2-3 km was closed for two days on account of
> extensive flooding and motorists had to simply abandon their stranded
> cars to begin their long walk home.
> The Mithi river’s course has also been diverted dangerously to enable
> the expansion of the airport’s runway. It is elitist schemes like
> these that were directly responsible for the tragedy though
> in the proverbial manner of the wolf blaming the poor goat downstream
> for obstructing the flow of water, the slum dwellers have been blamed
> on the ground that they blocked the drains, through their unhygienic
> and unsanitary ways of living.
> Belatedly now, the authorities have woken up to the importance of the
> Mithi river. Lakhs of people who travel daily by the western railway
> suburban network and pass the river between Bandra and Mahim, had
> little idea of the river’s crucial role in Mumbai’s environment. The
> high-profile MMRDA joint commissioner, T Chandrashekhar, known for the
> efficiency and ruthlessness in which he transformed Thane and Nagpur
> cities, was himself stranded in the office without electricity,
> telephone and television. He has made no secret of his hostility to
> slum dwellers but has rarely spoken out with the same vehemence
> against the rampant encroachment indulged in by the rich and powerful
> and the builder lobby.
> A positive fall-out of the disaster is that it appears to have brought
> the ruling class to its senses. At least for now, its much-touted
> intentions converting Mumbai into Shanghai have died away. This was
> most evident at a function held at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai on
> August 11 (a fortnight after the floods) to mark the opening of
> India-China Fellowship programme of the New School, New York. Chief
> minister Vilasrao Deshmukh conspicuously omitted any reference to
> Shanghai in his speech.
> Jayant Narlikar, noted scientist and science fiction writer, has
> written a short story which is of special relevance to the recent
> disaster in Mumbai. In the story set in the year 2040, Mumbai is
> engulfed by fire and is soon destroyed because the fire brigade finds
> that there is no water to put out the inferno. Indeed, in the very
> manner builders are vandalising the city in league with politicians,
> all portents point to an acute shortage of water in the near future.
> This is a scenario the disaster management team should consider, that
> is, if it starts working seriously.
> Narlikar’s story was written more than 10 years ago. One of the
> story’s finest qualities is that it emphasises the scientific temper.
> But when it comes to social issues, the story has its limitations. For
> instance, in Narlikar’s story, it is mainly the sprawling slums that
> are responsible for the disaster. In reality, slums may be an eyesore
> to some but it is a proven fact that they are environmentally far less
> damaging than the high-rise concrete jungle that is springing up all
> over the city. But more on Narlikar later.
> Today, if one were to write a short story or a factual account on
> disaster one would not only blame politicians, builders and
> bureaucrats but also the more advanced countries of the world. As Mike
> Davis, a renowned American scholar, has shown in his two brilliant
> works, Ecology of Fear and El Nino and the Late Victorian Holocaust,
> rich countries are more to blame for climate change and growing
> environmental disasters and it is they who should pay the cost of
> defending and saving societies that become victim to such disasters.
> Joel Towers, an expert in urban ecology in the US, who spoke in Mumbai
> a week after the disaster, did not refer to these issues but he did
> throw light on some aspects of climate change during a seminar
> organised by Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action and Research (PUKAR)
> at the NCPA. Towers warned that we should be prepared to face a severe
> storm, even the one that occurs once in a hundred years. The frequency
> of such storms will only have increased due to climate change. In a
> few years from now, such storms would come once every five years.
> A New System for Mumbai?
> Man’s interference with nature has indeed created various problems.
> The Mississippi river, which has seen several manmade interventions,
> now has a reduced capacity to accept water, with the result that its
> floodwaters spread far and wide. New York’s daily garbage has to be
> transported to other regions like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Michael
> Cohen, director, graduate programme in international affairs, New
> School, New York, said there was a lot of similarity between Mumbai
> and Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital. Buenos Aires woke up to
> disaster signals when 190 young people were burnt in a fire in a club
> and it was found that fire regulations had not been adhered to. The
> city spent most of its budget catering to barely 11 per cent, the
> elite, of its population, leading to a neglect of basic civic
> amenities. Thus the city that used to be flooded once in seven years,
> experiences floods seven times in one year. Arjun Appadurai, provost
> of the New School, New York, said that the administration responded
> either to the elite or to people at the bottom, that is, the slum
> dwellers. People in between, the middle class and the intellectuals,
> should now become active and intervene and articulate issues.
> Cohen was right to compare Mumbai with Buenos Aires rather than with
> New York or London. But after the recent disaster, some people have
> begun airing largely irrelevant and hazardous ideas like the cession
> of Mumbai from Maharashtra. They have also called for a stronger
> mayoral system, with mayors in the mould of Rudolph Guiliani, former
> mayor of New York, and Ken Livingstone, current London mayor, at the
> helm of affairs.
> Much of this seems to arise from ignorance. Rudy Guiliani’s work
> during the September 11, 2001 attack on New York is much lauded but
> what our chattering classes are unaware of is his other, ‘negative’,
> image as fascist, racist, and a ‘limousine’ conservative, apart from
> being decidedly anti-poor. During his regime it was difficult to
> secure permission for demonstrations against injustice; on one
> occasion demonstrators were arrested when they spilled over
> accidentally onto the street from their allotted positions. Ken
> Livingstone, the London mayor, has been for a long time a staunch
> leftist and is, therefore, known as ‘Red Ken’. Despised by the Right,
> he is (in)famous for the statement that capitalism killed more people
> than Hitler.
> The name truly relevant to Mumbai, is Enrique Penalosa, former mayor
> of Bogota, Colombia. He implemented simple, low-cost solutions for
> traffic problems, like creating big open, public spaces, cycle tracks
> and walking spaces for several kilometres. Needless to say, he is
> against flyovers and highways. Penalosa was in Mumbai last December
> and it was highly instructive listening to his experiences. One of his
> core arguments centres on public space. It is precious. Do not look at
> it as a piece of property to be built upon. Would you give your right
> arm away even if you get crores of rupees in return? The same thing
> with open, public space.
> There is now a greater need for social awareness and participation in
> the city’s development by all sections, particularly architects most
> of whom are obsessed with individual buildings and miss the larger
> framework completely. This is a cause for the current chaos. A look at
> the journal of the Institute of Architects makes it clear that there
> is little critical thinking into planning, it is as if everything is
> all right with our cities, our architecture, and our town planning
> systems. Surprisingly, Mumbai does not have an institute teaching town
> planning. The Academy of Architecture in Mumbai is only now starting a
> course in town planning. In Mumbai a few of the architects have also
> been reduced to the job of bribing municipal officials to get approval
> for building plans for builders.
> On the suggestion that Mumbai should be converted into a union
> territory, all one can say is that this is a politically dangerous
> area with immense possibilities of a backlash. J B D’souza, former
> chief secretary, has done well to caution that this is not the time
> for such an exercise.
> When Disaster Unites
> The heavy rains and floods hit all sections. One feels sorry for film
> star Amitabh Bachhan that the family’s old photographs and other
> memorabilia were damaged as the floodwaters entered the basement of
> his Juhu bungalow. Also damaged were luxury cars including a BMW and
> Mercedes Benz and books that apparently belonged to his late father, a
> cultured man and a poet. As floods elsewhere in India and on earlier
> occasions have shown, the elite, including film stars has seldom been
> bothered about the plight of the masses.
> Thus, the fact that some eminent film personalities have now filed a
> public interest litigation (PIL) in the courts against the state
> government’s inaction is also ironical. One wishes they had been more
> sensitive to wider concerns at other times and chosen to follow less
> hedonistic lifestyles. On the other hand, one of the more disturbing
> stories I heard is about a car driver in Kalina who went out of his
> way to safely bring children back from school. It was only after
> having seen to this, that he started walking home to his slum in
> Bandra and hours later his body was found.
> Three decades ago, there had been people like the eminent actor Balraj
> Sahani who stayed in riot-torn Bhiwandi for a fortnight organising
> relief for the victims. This was not done at all for publicity. There
> was little television coverage then. But he was an exceptional man and
> many film stars of today pale in comparison.
> While it is true that the administration failed miserably, it appears
> the upper class is now protesting because it has suddenly found that
> it is also vulnerable to disaster.
> The affluent residents of Cumballa Hill have been agitating for some
> time against the cutting of a nearby hill by a builder for a big
> luxury housing project, which endangers their buildings. Theirs is a
> worthy cause but then why are such people not sensitive to cutting of
> hills elsewhere? Every year poor people die because of the desecration
> of hills by the builder lobby. This year the tragedy at Saki Naka was
> horrendous. Apart from the government and the civic body, the builder
> lobby is to a very large extent responsible for the havoc caused in
> Mumbai. This lobby has not yet attracted the wrath of the people.
> It is now established beyond doubt that indiscriminate construction
> activity done by the builder lobby in league with corrupt politicians
> and officialdom resulted in blockage of drainage routes and the
> resultant flooding. The latest example was reported on August 14 of a
> building whose construction in Worli led to the shrinking of a nullah
> and causing extensive flooding after only a few hours of rainfall (as
> reported in Mumbai Mirror). The corporate sector, which now wants to
> call the shots and run down the government at every opportunity,
> incidentally was completely missing from rescue and relief efforts.
> Where were the people associated with Bombay First, the organisation
> wedded to ideas like converting Mumbai into Shanghai? It is now more
> than clear that the corporate sector has misplaced priorities
> regarding the kind of infrastructure Mumbai should have. One has never
> heard of their demanding an upgrading of the drainage system. But it
> is now accepted that it is the drainage system that deserves the
> highest priority.
> All Round Failure
> All these years the government and the business elite have had
> completely different priorities. Some of the projects focused on by
> the state government at the infrastructure conference at the Taj Mahal
> hotel in Mumbai in 2002 included a golf course, a country club, a
> series of multiplex cinemas in Navi Mumbai and development of
> multilevel parking. Not once was drainage referred to.
> The elite is now browbeating the government about its failure. But it
> is this very elite that has demanded from the government
> infrastructure in the shape of more flyovers, highways, airports and
> car parks; there has even been a demand to make Mumbai an
> entertainment zone. But the elite has never demanded better schooling
> or postal services or libraries. In fact, there is now a subtle
> campaign asking the government to disband schools for the poor. Worse,
> the poor, the victims of most disasters, are blamed for all the
> shortcomings of the system. Now, there is even a sinister proposal to
> convert hundreds of acres around Gorai from a non-development zone
> into a development zone. This will only worsen the drainage problems.
> One also realised how the poor did not get proper information. For
> example, there was a continuous flow of information post- flooding,
> etc, on private TV channels. But most people in the slums and poorer
> quarters have no access to cable TV and private news channels.
> Doordarshan was also not giving regular updates on the position about
> trains, flights, road conditions and flooding. So in effect, the poor
> are deprived not only of basic amenities but also information that
> could assist their survival. A highly cost-effective way of reaching
> out to the poor would be through the medium of the radio, especially
> the transistor, which is one’s best link with the outside world when
> television, electricity and telephones fail as they did during the
> recent floods. Another asset could be community radio, which is widely
> used in the west.
> There was thus failure at all levels, political, bureaucratic and
> corporate. The political machinery was nowhere to be seen. It started
> working much later and this was more in the nature of publicity
> gestures. Maharashtra Times, the Marathi daily, announced that it
> would not publish any picture of politicians giving aid. In contrast,
> people, the common man of the streets, worked heroically, helping one
> another, despite all odds. But for many people the tragedy is still
> not over. Many have fallen victim to the post-flood epidemic outbreak.
> Email : datebandra@...
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