Mumbai’s annual flooding problem is directly linked to the kind of city imagined and created, reflected in the city policy and planning.

Extreme weather events or ‘climate change’ is becoming more and more evident over the years. And so is its use as a pretext to justify poor city planning. This is exactly the case with Mumbai’s annual flooding phenomenon. Each year, Mumbai’s drains, streets, local train tracks and homes flood, causing hardship, destruction – on occasion bringing the city to a standstill. The reason why Mumbai is unable to solve this problem for decades, is directly linked to the kind of city imagined and created, reflected in the city policy and planning.

Clamour for transforming Mumbai into a ‘world-class city’, a portrayal of zooming private cars, bullet trains and glass enclaves, has been used in party manifestos and government documents. This clearly highlights what kind of vision city leaders and representatives in power have for the city of dreams. Alas, this has only helped the case for more and more concretization – ignoring the city’s carrying capacity in the process, and leaving little space for the majority of its inhabitants, let alone for its rainwater.

Right now, as you read this, a little away from our shoreline, boring machines are whiling away Rs 8000 crores of Mumbai’s corpus to lay the foundation for an upcoming coastal road. This new facility will cater to around 2 percent of the city’s population. This, as 42 percent of its population lives in sub-human conditions, with poor access to basic services. Meanwhile, a whopping 77 percent of the capital budget allocated (Rs 510 crores) to solid waste management, and 42 percent of the capital budget allocated (Rs 1,787 crores) to water and sewerage works by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) in 2018-19, lies unspent!

Are the 2 percent – the car and daily transportation users the coastal road is being built to serve –in Mumbai, the ones to have their homes flooded every year? No. Is the construction and reclamation of land for Bandra-Kurla Complex and the Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link blamed for the annual Mithi river flooding, as it ought to be? No. It is the 42 percent of Mumbai’s residents who aren’t taken into account in the city’s development plan, that bear the consequences of such ‘development’. They are also the ones blamed for it. Let’s look at solid waste management (SWM) too, while we’re at it.

Praja Foundation’s 2018 report on civic issues found that 41 percent of the total SWM complaints in 2019 were from nine wards – F/North (Matunga), P/North (Malad), P/South (Goregaon), R/North (Dahisar), R/South (Kandivali), M/West (Chembur), N (Ghatkopar), L (Kurla), and S (Mulund) – in which over 50 percent of the residents live in slums. In these wards, the number of days taken to solve complaints related to ‘garbage not lifted from collection point’ was 20 days on average; to ‘collection point not attended properly’ was 19 days on average; and ‘garbage vehicle not arrived’ was 26 days on average. These are far from the prescribed one day in MCGM’s Citizen’s Charter.  The L ward (Kurla), in which 54 percent of residents are slum dwellers, saw the longest wait of all wards to solve complaints related to ‘garbage vehicle not arrived’ – 85 days!

Poor SWM services have a direct impact on health, too. During COVID-19 , for instance, Praja found that five wards with highest number of containment zones in slums/chawls. Five wards – L (Kurla), M/East (Govandi), S (Mulund), K/West (Andheri West) and R/South (Kandivali) – also had complaints about water shortage, drainage and garbage. This showcases a direct link of lack of basic service provision to poor public health.

Despite several complaints filed with the MCGM, and the lackadaisical attitude towards mitigating them, when it comes time for monsoon flooding due to clogged drains, the same people denied access to basic services are put at fault – be it slum tenements on the bank of Mithi or other victims of a poor waste management service.

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Therefore, to begin to talk about climate resilience or sustainability in a city like Mumbai, the vision for ‘what we want the city to be’ will need to be re-envisioned and revised. For this, sustainability needs to be considered from the perspective of urban planning and provision of basic services – a foundational issue the city continues to struggle with. It needs to be made clear to civil servants and the general public that many factors have a direct impact on the city’s resilience. Some of these include the kind of transport, the material of roads or pavements, availability of clean water, quality of housing, source of energy, the method of waste disposal and so on.

‘Development’ will need to take into account the entirety of the city’s population for planning and ensuring equitable and effective basic service provision. To make this a reality, however, will demand that people (including those in the government) come together in recognizing the need for and build processes that operationalize a collective vision for the city that has its roots in equity and sustainability. Only then can we possibly have a monsoon in Mumbai, sans the flooding.

The author is project coordinator at Praja Foundation.

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