First up, apologies for writing about Mumbai in a national column. Mumbai is just one city of India. However, it is also the nation’s financial and business capital. The city’s health has a bearing on the rest of the country.
Earlier this week, the world saw Mumbai in tatters because of the weather. On Tuesday Mumbai witnessed heavy rains, around 30cm in 24hrs. To place it in context, Mumbai received an eighth of its annual 225cm average rainfall on one day. This level of rain is very high, even though Mumbai has received over 90cm in a day (in 2005).
Having said that, it is also not a level at which the city needs to come to a grinding halt. Local trains stopped due to flooded tracks. City taxis, aggregator cabs and autos went off waterlogged roads. Many school kids slept in schools overnight. Passengers at local train stations parked themselves in abandoned trains, the only dry place they found, for hours.
The response to this avoidable problem followed a standard pattern. The morning started with gushing praise for the spectacle called Mumbai rains. By noon, pictures of waterlogging filled social media feeds. A couple of hours later, there were reports of people braving the rain and walking home, the ‘unshakeable spirit of Mumbai’ (as if the person walking home had another choice).
Then we had reports of compassion, on how Mumbaikars were serving hot tea and offering shelter to those stranded. At night TV news panelists shouted at each other, perhaps hoping that all the screaming would make the clouds drift away.
Nobody offered any solutions. Nobody really knows how things will change. The best hope for Mumbai, which has ramshackle infrastructure even on sunny days, is that God will be kind. Yes, we are a Ram-bharose city.
We may have stock exchanges totaling a trillion dollar market capitalisation. We may have civic authorities with billions of dollars worth of budgets. We may have apartments that cost millions of dollars. However, a few hours of rain and the city collapses.
There is no other major city, which happens to be a nation’s financial capital, with such terrible infrastructure. The local trains are pitiful even on normal days. In many parts of the world, farm animals travel better. Mumbai roads continue to be poorly made, patched up with materials that don’t last one rainy season. The drainage system breaks down in heavy rains.
The authorities care little. Mumbai is a tiny percentage of votes in Maharashtra. Its political clout is less than the high profile of the city. Add the apathy of people, who gather in lakhs if their religion or guru is hurt, but won’t do the same to change their city.
If angry Mumbaikars came on the road in large numbers for just one day and demanded ‘fix my city’, the authorities will sit up and take notice. We don’t, and prefer to do our bit by retweeting helpline numbers and sharing stories of who offered chai. Well, we get the city we deserve.
Meanwhile here are two suggestions that will help, not just Mumbai but other cities as well. The first is easy and should be implemented as soon as possible. The second is harder, but will truly fix the problem. It is now up to authorities to implement and citizens to put pressure for the same.
One, we urgently need a severe weather warning system. Weather reports saying ‘heavy rains expected’ aren’t action oriented. There has to be a scale of how bad the weather is likely to get, and what actions need to be taken at each level. For instance, we can have a scale as follows. 0: Normal situation; 1: Weather may turn bad, keep watching weather reports; 2: Strong rains/ winds, primary schools to be closed; 3: Very strong rains/ winds, all schools closed, advise others to stay home; 4: Extremely bad weather, all schools, offices, colleges to be closed, essential services only, limited public transport, stay indoors; and 5: Entire city shutdown.
This simple scale, prominently broadcast, could help people plan their movements and dramatically reduce hardship. For instance, last Tuesday would have been a ‘4’; in 2005 we had a ‘5’.
Of course predicting weather is difficult, though technology has improved a lot. There may be an intermittent false alarm. However, nowadays people can occasionally work from home. Hence, productivity losses will be limited. A weather warning system like the above is similar to the typhoon signal system in Hong Kong, which works brilliantly. Hong Kong also receives heavy rain; however, the city doesn’t suffer or stall in bad weather as much.
The second suggestion is to fix the roads. Roads in Mumbai need to be made of concrete cement (same as they do abroad, or even in parts of Lutyens’ Delhi). Using coal tar is nothing more than placing a coat of paint. It erodes in months leaving potholes. All new Mumbai roads must be made of cement, by law. Similarly, a world class drainage system is required. And yeah, would be nice if the people involved didn’t steal public money.
Mumbai has suffered enough. It is time we stopped accepting this suffering, or worse, celebrating it. Record rains are tough to handle. But with the right weather warning systems, good roads and drainage, they need not cripple Mumbai. It is time we fixed the city.