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And Mumbai floats back home

Bruised and battered, our writer limped back home. She saw much - and believes that the  Mumbaikar spirit is matched only matched by Mumbai's chaos.


28 July, 2005: Mumbai reeled like a drunken sailor for the past two days with torrential rains cutting off all avenues of transportation. While parts of Maharashtra had flash floods that submerged entire villages in the rains, Mumbai's roads and railways were all cut off completely. People left their luggage, and all goods and trudged to places in the morning - the night after. The city roads were studded with rows of abandoned cares piled up in heaps. 

Areas in and around King's Circle was submerged, though people in Fort fared slightly better. Sion, Chembur Naka were flooded, all shops were shut down. Houses along the road from Sion to Bandra Kurla (where i was walking) were also reeling from the effects of water into their homes. The entire area was filled with desperate looking people trudging up the roads umbrellas shielding them ineffectively against the incessant rains, bottles, slippers bobbing up in the dirty water. 

BEST buses (buses run by state transport services) could be seen moving in the midst of the rains in Bandra area. When they drive by, waves would hit people who were walking on the roads. With the water being already waist high, each time a bus passed, the entire walking population on the road would be hit with another fresh wave of water, ensuring that at least some were picked up and deposited by the waves. 

I left office at 5.30 pm with my colleague who thankfully had a chauffeured car. We reached Sion from Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC) about 6 kms from my office at 6.30 pm after trying various other routes as well. There, we became part of an enormous traffic jam created by high water and damaged or abandoned vehicles, and waiting people. There, we waited through the night for the water to recede to accceptable levels so that we could either drive thru or walk some of the distance. It was a fruitless exercise.

At 5.30 am the next day, after spending the night cramped in the car, occassionally putting on the AC, we decided to move. I spent 4 hours in the morning trying to find a way out of the traffic jam - first walking towards Chembur Naka towards my home and then realising it was pretty dangerous; walking for 3 hours to Bandra Kurla Complex back to my office. 

During the way, i was soaked to the skin. I fell into the water a number of times. I had to leave my laptop in the car, abandoning it to the fates, when i realised I was simply not capable of carrying such a heavy bag through the water-logged roads and was more likely to damage it than save it.

I lost my slippers when someone pushed me in his hurry to move faster. In between, I spent time worrying about my young son, my sister and my husband in that order. Thanks to the wonderful neighbours, my parents in Delhi and my brother-in-law, we survived this nightmare. 

On the way, I saw many examples of great warmth by the Mumbaikar, of old and young, displays of extraordinary courage, and cheerfulness to stoicism. There was a sense of acceptance and resignation - which is what probably holds the city back from fighting back. Still, there is no immediate anger and resolve visible. Everyone knows that the infrastructure should be improved. But what one still sees is an acceptance of one's lot that probably goes with being Indian to a large extent. 

However, for someone who is still a foreigner to the city, it was a harrowing experience, having lost my footing several times, fear of falling into an open manhole or drain, and no means of communicating with my family. 

What was obvious though was the complete lack of management and crisis control by the Govt of the Day. 

Ensuring that the state machinery is equipped to deal with such natural disasters is something that is relegated to the background, occupied as governments and parties are with their political theatre.

Even if we accept the fact that the degree and ferocity of the rains was unpredictable, certainly Mumbai is hit by the monsoons and life does get paralysed for at least 1/2 day every year. We are talking about the financial capital of the country where some of the biggest financial and industrial powerhouses of the country are lcoated and yet, natural disasters with montonous regularity manage to bring 
the entire city to a halt. 

This time, of course, the magnitude of the storm and rains was unprecedented and the loss in productivity was naturally unanticipated.

But to move ahead, the city needs to look at such events honestly. We need to evaluate the city's civic machinery with a fine discerning eye, accept that loss of lives, productive hours and unmanaged transport systems are unacceptable. Blaming it on the weather gods is not the way to go about it.

News needs to reach commuters faster. The rains increased in fury from 2 PM and the roads started flooding right then. The telephone lines were still up at this stage. The Govt should have immediately put up a weather and road alert system on the FM - we were on the radio from 6 pm hunting in vain for an update on what was happening and which roads were blocked. Unfortunately we had to depend on such highly sophisticated systems such as passers-by who had been travelling from one place to another to get an idea.

Maps and diversions should be put in in places where there is danger of accidents for travellers. It should certainly not be a case of groping in the dark. 

Survelliance helicopters and special forces should swing into action much earlier than they did - it was a case of too little too late. 

There was no action at all from the state govt during the evening when the water level was rising fast. By the time they got moving, it was too late and too big to manage.

For those who would argue that this was a natural disaster, i am yet to be convinced that the top 100 cities of the world do not face tough natural disasters. My bet is that they handle their situations a darned sight better simply because they are better prepared and better managed. 

All in all, I would say we are a long, long way off from being a middle-level power. And we should keep our dreams exactly where they belong - during our slumber...! 



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