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Fwd: Mumbai blame game

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  • mohammad imran
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 31, 2005
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      Begin forwarded message:

      > From: Mayraj Fahim <fmayraj@...>
      > Date: August 31, 2005 8:58:00 AM EDT
      > To: imran@...
      > Subject: Mumbai blame game
      >
      >  
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      > http://www.epw.org.in/showArticles.php?
      > root=2005&leaf=08&filename=9008&filetype=html
      >
      > 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 of repairing and modernising the city's outdated drainage system has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
      >
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      > 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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