March 28, 2020
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A Playground Called Mumbai

The CM says that the drainage system was not to blame. Please, Mr. Deshmukh, spare us will you, do you take us for morons? Will you just get on with the job of restoring normalcy?

A Playground Called Mumbai
A Playground Called Mumbai

Tuesday 26th July started as a day as any other monsoon day in Mumbai, dull, grey, with the hint of heavy showers as always present in the air. I was among the millions who went to work, never quite anticipating the disaster unleashed by the rains later in the afternoon. From my office in mid-town I went downtown and there in offices first heard anxious talk among the staff about disruption in train services. By that time, three in the afternoon, it had been raining heavily for an hour or so, but surely, I thought, an hour of rain was not enough to stop trains - normally a few hours of sustained rainfall, thus went conventional wisdom, thrown in with high tides and choked drains was what brought the city to a standstill, and this was inevitable a few times every year.

I started back home at 4.30 p.m., amidst a heavy downpour, thinking, well, this was one of those lousy days when I would take twice the usual time to get back home to Powai, maybe 2-3 hours. At least I had my driver to do all the hard stop-go driving through rain and traffic. Very soon though I realized I was being very optimistic. Ten minutes into the drive, in front of Churchgate station, commuters had started spilling out of the station, desperately flagging down cabs. So the train service was out. It took us another half an hour to get to Fountain, a couple of hundred metres away. Another hour to get to the venerable old lady of Boribunder, the Times of India office, and VT station. half a kilometer from Fountain. The already tight distance between vehicles on Mumbai roads, usually measured in inches, was now filled by commuters squeezing through and taking to the roads, trudging to the next station in the hope of finding a train that was running.

We inched on (that is, literally) to the JJ Road flyover. Masses of people streamed by, none asked for a lift, they knew they were better off walking. Cars going north to the suburbs then streamed on to the opposite-traffic lanes. This worried me, surely, this would only lead to massive traffic pile-ups if not controlled right away. We had seen a few traffic cops earlier on, but none now. We spent a couple of hours on the 3 km long flyover. I tried calling home but the cellphone network seemed to have gone down too. I got down from the car and went down the road to get some food. Most of the roadside stalls seemed to have closed down. I just grabbed some water and biscuits, we munched silently as it slowly sank in that this was going to be one long night. I finally managed to get in touch with friends and family and it was then that I started getting the stories. My neighbour, an Indian Airlines pilot had started from the airport at 2 p.m., and was struggling through neck-deep water, having long abandoned his car. Another friend downtown was busy arranging food for his staff staying back in office for the night. There were reports of parents looking for children returning from school.

We made valiant attempts to find alternative routes off the main road but it was the same story everywhere. Waters a few feet high on all roads across the city simply stopped the vehicles from going through. I saw buses and trucks trying to power their way through and then sputtering and coming to a standstill. Vehicles filled up every inch of road and pavement and all pointed north. I was having nightmares of being able to surmount the waters first and then the inevitable traffic chaos. I silently cursed the traffic police. On regular days they do a sterling job in shepherding traffic through, in often trying and harsh conditions. But they were hardly to be seen anywhere today. Not that they could have done much anyway. But at least they could have tried to direct the traffic in a more ordered fashion and perhaps maintained one lane for oncoming traffic.

My journey during the night, meanwhile, if I were to use the word, continued. We were more or less pushed along in this conveyor-belt traffic and finally ground to a halt at 2 a.m. in the morning in Wadala. A suburb, not far from the main transport interchange at Dadar, which I thought, looking around, so well represented the paradox that is Mumbai. Leafy surroundings with peaceful four-storeyed residential buildings from the old times, and large schools with playgrounds (now you don’t find many in Mumbai) sit together with a main truck thoroughfare and a truck terminal and some nasty chemical factories and storages around the corner.

I slept for an hour and after some fidgeting around took a walk towards the main highway. I waded through half a kilometer of waist-high water, crossing half-submerged taxis, brightly led buses with passengers dozing off, people half dazed in a stupor inside their cars, the occasional car stereo belting out songs and only a few people outside, mostly wandering around aimlessly. Many cars were without anyone inside, their owners having given up any thought of driving home, they must have simply walked. But the real shock, visually, was on the main highway. The flyover, from one end to the other, was one silent mass of vehicles, literally at each other’s throats. But it was the sheer silence all around and the darkness, inspite of the hundreds of vehicles and thousands of people on that one flyover, that was so striking. And it reminded me of my three year old’s toy set of a playground with stationary vehicles and men and the way we just used to move them around. And that’s what I thought in an instant - I can move around these cars and people and play around, and there still will not be any life. It all seemed so unreal and I could visualize the same scene all across the city and I thought - this city is for once nothing but one large playground. And my earlier picture of a conveyor-belt like movement of traffic only seemed to enhance this playground kind of spectacle.

I went back to tell my driver to leave the car and walk with me but he wanted to catch up on sleep and stay put for a while longer. So I walked. I waded through water. First with tens of people at 5 a.m., sticking together in the middle of the road at the divider to dodge unseen potholes and more dangerously, open manholes which are deathtraps for many every year during the monsoons. Then there were hundreds of peoples at 6 a.m. Now people were talking more, exchanging their tales of the beastly night past.

With daylight, hope and optimism seemed to make a natural return. At 7 a.m., there were thousands trudging across the Eastern Express Highway, now shouts of Ganpati Bappa Morya filled the air from beneath a canopy of umbrellas which defiantly held back the rain. On the way, we saw cars submerged, trucks abandoned, autorickshaws with roofs barely visible under water. The highway for a large part is a whole series of flyovers. And I saw the same sights everywhere. Cars and people piled up everywhere on the flyover, and water, water often waist deep, in between the flyovers - the one arresting image was an ambulance stranded on the road with the driver fast asleep in his seat, his face gently cooled by the rain falling on his face through the open window. I wonder about the chances of survival of any medical emergency case in these circumstances. Another image I carry is the incongruous sight of four garbage trucks rushing through the waters and getting roundly cursed by all of us, not for representing the sole movement on the roads, but for the waves they created as the already waist-deep water reached our necks.

I finally got off the highway and onto roads with no waterlogging. And looked for a taxi or autorickshaw to take me home.There were none, bar the occasional furtive vehicle which sped along with passengers who would doubtless have had to cough up a lot of money to get a seat. So with feet sore from walking in my leather shoes for five hours, I finally made it home and to a welcome rest.

I was among the lucky ones to have reached home in a day. The stories kept coming in. Of schoolchildren stranded overnight in schools. Of office goers having spent the night in office and preparing for another. Of animal carcasses and dead bodies floating on the runway of the Chattrapati Shivaji International Airport. Of the airport and train stations overflowing with people. Of people expecting friends and family from outstation trains having no idea of where to go in the first place as there was no information on where which train had stopped. My driver got the car back somehow by evening, he went home to find his first-floor home flooded, at least his family had managed to find refuge in an upper floor. Many others were not as fortunate. The cleaner of the building broke down as she narrated how she and her family was on the streets after homes were washed away. We immediately put together some clothes and money. There will be tens of thousands of more such homeless. As always in any such disaster, it’s the poor who are the hardest hit.

I have spent 15 years in Mumbai, I haven’t seen the city as crippled. Three days on, trains are gradually being put into service, the first flight in 3 days took off this afternoon. My neighbour, a pilot with Indian Airlines, was simply asked to get to the airport ASAP, destination unknown. Our cable connection was not working so we could not catch up on news on TV. We relied on the radio and telephone for updates. Many buildings in suburbs were without electricity, the water to our building was cut off this morning. We had no milk and newspaper yesterday. Today’s newspaper carried the gruesome pictures of dead and wounded, and the usual noises from the politicians including a statement by the CM that the drainage system was not to blame. Please, Mr. Deshmukh, spare us will you, do you take us for morons? Will you just get on with the job of restoring normalcy? I cringed at the last page of the newspaper which carried the usual celeb-speak of where the city’s movers and shakers were held up in the rains. Please, please, Mr. Editor, for once, could you not spare us the Page 3 trash you subject us to ever so relentlessly?

The city has been battered as it never was. No doubt it will be back to business as usual very soon. The stock market still went up the day after. But I hope this disaster serves as a reality check as well for all the big plans for Mumbai that our politicians have been mouthing around. Rest assured, we will never see a Shanghai in Mumbai in this generation or the next, unless the city is physically shifted say, 50 or100 kilometers away. The current infrastructure is a complete mess. An international airport which is bluntly speaking, a joke. An antiquated water and sewer system which remains largely inaccessible beneath all the rampant construction of the city. Roads on which the only addition are flyovers which simply speed up vehicles for a couple of minutes and then pile them up on the same old bottlenecks. Railways, where every available second has been squeezed out and the system can take no more.

There needs to be an element of planning in urban regeneration, so sadly sacrificed in the pursuit of money. I stay in the residential area of Raheja Vihar in Powai, a concrete jungle of 40 buildings with not a single decent park, the most recent blasphemy being the school playground being taken over for the construction of a residential tower.I don’t blame the builders.They are businessmen. It is the administration which is to blame, but ironically, maybe this is its idea for becoming profitable and more business-like. Nevertheless, the concrete continues to suck out the air from the city’s lungs and the water from its body and will finally take life from its soul.

The middle class continues to power the economy as the current generation, having never known of luxuries in its growing up, splurges as if there is no tomorrow. But the 200 million middle class is nothing compared to the 700 million poor. Unless the growing rich-poor divide is arrested and reversed, and the poor have more opportunity and their children have an education, the country cannot make real progress. Deeper structural problems remain unaddressed - jobs need to be created in rural areas and small towns, to prevent pressure on urban resources. The country’s rich natural resources, its flora and fauna, continue to be frittered away on a short-term orgy of get-rich-now-forget-the-future attitude.

There is today no more concrete (pardon this over-used word) example of the rich-poor divide than the teeming, bursting, chaotic metropolis of Mumbai. Mr. Deshmukh, there is no grass or mud or earth left in the city to absorb rainwater. On concrete, water defies gravity and travels upwards.

Satish Raju, an IITian, when not wading through water-clogged Mumbai, works in reinsurance business.

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