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Monday, May 31, 2010

Nature's fury teaches Mumbai a lesson

Ever since the flood devastated Mumbai on July 26, the spotlight has been on the Mithi river. Well, this river has been systematically reduced to a stinking drain, thanks to politicians encouraging rampant encroachments along its way. Environmental experts and the government are unanimous on the sustained damage being done to the river as the cause of the July 26 floods.

Uncovered traced the path of this now infamous river - from its origin to where it finally meets the sea - every curve of the river was altered by greed and neglect over time. Mithi river consists 1,600 acres of water and the Vihar dam is the source. It flows South meandering its way to Powai, a Mumbai suburb. Another dam at Powai feeds into the river.

From here, the river begins its journey to the sea, which is 15 kilometres away and it is from there that it is relentlessy battered. The river passes a four kilometres stretch, where lakhs of illegal hutments and industries that have been dumping waste for decades. It then moves toward the airport to its final stretch at Bandra-Kurla complex where it was once at its widest. What finally opens out to the sea is a tiny drain. The mouth of the river was once 1,200 metres wide and is now shrunk to 300 metres.

But even as citizens of Mumbai have slowly recovered from the equivalent of the biblical flood, there are some who have lost their homes and loved ones. For them, all the buck passing between the BMC and the politicians has just added to their grief and devastation.

So as the relief work carries on, MLA Nassem Khan vehemently blames the Municipal Corporation. But this is his constituency, so the hundred odd lives drowned or buried under debris or the fifty thousand houses on the banks of the river that was washed away, were just a vote bank for him. These people were living in illegal encroachments and no one saw it fit to move them from there. The minister, predictably, refutes that he was under the influence of any politicking.

Nawab Mallik is responsible for the Kurla, Nehru Nagar constituency, which was one of the worst hit areas. This politician told CNBC-TV18, "No one paid heed to my warning and the BMC is responsible for the damage." Ironically, he should know. His area, Kurla, has numerous illegal industrial belts and illegal hutments by the riverside. So water up to 12 feet high got hemmed in and could not find its way to the river and it stayed there for days because the surrounding areas had been raised.

Mallik's constituency is right next to the airport. For the first time in its history, flights were halted for four days. The reason ran beneath the runway. The airport has been built on reclaimed land and the airport authorities have often sanctioned projects to lengthen runways.

But how does one alter the course of a river, which kept getting in the way? Airport officials permitted the use of embankments to divert the river's course. This was done thrice and the diversion caused the river to turn 90 degrees. Yet the airport's expansion plans are far from over. When contacted for explanations, airport authorities refused to comment.

It's not like the floods were not anticipated - letters of warning, reports by the pollution board - were all sent out but people who make decisions for Mumbai city refused to read them. These documents and reports clearly pointed out the danger and the state government and the every successive administration was warned on many occasions.

In fact, the Pollution Control Board asked for immediate action in 2003. Corporator of Vakola, George Abraham says, "I had asked the BMC to take immediate action." He wrote a letter as late as June 15, to clean the Mithi river or else Mumbai will flooded.

In May 2003, the Central and state pollution control board sent notices to the municipal commissioner and the state government. The notices categorically stated that the Mithi river had to be cleaned urgently. Numerous meetings took place and letters flew back and forth but nothing happened.

Kirit Somaiya, a former MP has been writing letters to all concerned authorities since 2001 and now, as a concerned citizen, he has filed a public interest litigation, PIL, with the Bombay High Court, over the failure of the state government to protect lives and property.

In 1992, the road to Vihar dam was closed to the public for 'security' reasons but behind the high walls, the Mithi is in for trouble and no one is talking. Ten years later, even in 2002, the road remained close to the public and now a reason has been discovered.

Tonnes of earth is being dumped every day there, which is burying a valley of trees right on the riverbanks. Behind the high walls, machines work for hours into the day because the road is being widened. No one knows for what reason, only that it passes by two seven-star hotels.

Naseem has lived by Powai lake all his life. He's a caretaker at the Angling Society. He was stuck for two nights at the dam on July 26. He explains what he has been observing for quite some time now, "The water level in the lake is rising steadily and there is dumping of waste happening there."

Conservationist Debbi Goenka adds, that the river is important for Mumbai but the siltation, concrete and water level is rising every year because of so many buidlings coming up haphazardly, around its vicinity.

Before it finally meets the sea, the Mithi used to be at its widest - that's till the majestic Bandra-Kurla complex, BKC, was built and the river was in the way and needed to be diverted yet again. The Secretary for special projects, Government of Maharashtra, Sanjay Ubale says that environmentalists were consulted before building the Bandra-Kurla complex.

Now, in a typical case of pointing fingers and doing what was needed to be done almost 10 years ago, committees are being formed to clean up the river. This in itself is an indirect admission of guilt about the disaster. But will the government be able to clean up its act before the next monsoon?

At every point, a force of nature has been battered and abused and it's only fitting that she would strike back with fury. So, when finally the rain poured down on the city, the river coughed it right back in Mumbai's face.

Written for www.moneycontrol.com

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