Two days after a toddler and a 12-year-old drowned in the open drains and pits that make Mumbai’s streets a deathtrap, AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi made his first campaign speech in the city for the upcoming Assembly polls in Maharashtra. But not a word did this influential politician utter about these deaths, or about the callousness of the authorities who run the city.
It’s not as if the Hyderabad MP didn’t attack the Shiv Sena and the BJP, the parties that govern both the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the state. Indeed, Owaisi directed his considerable oratory at them, but only to accuse them of “injustice to Muslims”.
Of course, Owaisi’s audience was 100% Muslim. But Muslims are as much if not more at risk than other Mumbaikars today, because they constitute a significant proportion of pavement-dwellers and slum-dwellers, the most vulnerable sections during the monsoons.
But it’s silly to expect anything else of a politician who has built his career around Muslim victimhood. And why blame him? Mumbai’s hazardous living conditions have never been an election issue for any party, not even when municipal polls are fought. Language, religion, region—these have been the themes around which voters have been wooed in the country’s Urbs Prima.
Urbs Prima: this label rings so false today, for a city that sees the majority of its population pushed backwards economically and educationally every year, simply by the weather. Mumbai has always been associated with the monsoons. But for more than a decade now, after the first few heavy downpours, at least half of Mumbai’s homes get flooded, spoiling possessions bought after years of thrift: the fridge, the washing machine, the TV stand, the bookshelf.
Worse are the deaths that have become part of the monsoon. Around 40 have died since June 28, when the rains started in earnest. Tree falls, open drains and manholes, potholes, wall collapses, electrocutions and crowded trains running late because of waterlogging, have been the main causes of the deaths.
The original sin, however, lies in government policy. Even an illiterate slum dweller can explain why her home gets flooded every year now, while it didn’t earlier. The open spaces surrounding her slum that absorbed rainwater have been replaced with concrete towers.
Builders and contractors began influencing policy in Mumbai in the early 90s when the Sena-BJP was in power. But over the last 25 years, they’ve come to own the city. This columnist knows of Municipal commissioners who have signed on building plans which encroach on others’ property, and provide neither the mandatory space for parking nor even for the fire brigade.
There’s also this reality: The country’s richest municipal corporation, headed by the CM’s chosen IAS officer, has stopped performing its duties for the last 15 years. Citizens have moved courts hoping to get the BMC to act, in vain. Municipal officials know that the worst that can happen is that they will have to dip into the BMC’s ample funds to pay compensation for those dead by their negligence—if the victims’ families fight long enough. Rarely is anyone held accountable.
For a change, four engineers were arrested after the bridge near Mumbai’s iconic VT (no one uses its new name: Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus) collapsed in March, killing six. Had it been a suburban bridge, no one would have been punished.
Similarly, the arrest of three employees of a multinational company in 2013 after a bridge collapsed killing three labourers, was probably due to its location: as part of the approach to Mumbai’s swanky international airport. Otherwise, four bridges have collapsed since 2012, killing two Mumbaikars and injuring 31. But no one has been punished.
In 2017, a stampede on a railway bridge left 23 dead and 39 injured. This station is located in what used to be the textile mill area, but changed into a commercial district a decade ago. But neither did the Railways think it necessary to build more bridges to cope with the increased traffic, nor did the BMC suggest it. A year after the collapse, the police closed the inquiry into the stampede, classifying it as an “accident” caused by “unprecedented rains”.
Before Mumbai’s latest disaster, the collapse of a wall around a BMC reservoir on July 1 that killed 28 also got classified as an accident. City activists brought out a report showing this was anything but. Not only did the wall itself have design faults, but as far back as 1995, the Bombay High Court had ordered the BMC to relocate the very settlements that were swept away by the reservoir’s waters. If ever there was a state-made disaster, this was it.
There was a time when the rains were awaited with joy by Mumbaikars. Now, we wait for them with dread. And that’s only because this city has been ruined by its rulers. Climate change is being blamed for the delayed monsoon this year, and the torrential rains thereafter. Now that’s a concept Mumbai’s rulers know nothing of, as they change CRZ regulations, reclaim the sea, destroy mangroves and flatten hillocks for coastal roads, bullet trains and new airports—none of which the majority wants. And this is supposed to be a democracy!
But democracy does work. Last week’s High Court judgment stopping construction of the coastal road is a victory of Mumbaikars undivided by religion, with no help from politicians.
Freelance journalist based in Mumbai