It's a failing administration's dream come true. Localise the issue that everyone is making the loudest noise about, make it appear that this (issue) was the cause of the entire mess, set up not one but two committees to study the problem and then sit back till the next crisis erupts.
Mumbai's 13km long Mithi River is a disaster that was waiting to happen, like countless other disasters in the city. It does not take an expert in urban planning or perhaps, more appropriately, toxicology o determine where the river was going or not going or how badly it was stuffed with effluents and garbage.
A 10-year-old looking out of a local train while crossing the bridge over the river between Mahim and Bandra suburban railway stations in north Mumbai could have concluded the same; that its an utter failure of urban governance, if it ever existed to begin with.
The slums that mushroomed up around the mouth of the river on the Mahim side didn't appear out of a magician's hat. Someone allowed them to come up just a few years ago, like they did up the river, on both sides, as they still do across the rest of the city, even as we speak.
At Mahim, around the still, stagnant waters, just before the river flows under a railway and then a road bridge and meets the creek and then the Arabian sea, the slums jostle with each other in resplendent third world glory – surrounded by huge mounds of plastic bags and assorted garbage, which lie untouched even today.
The same child would have told you that people who live in such conditions are sitting ducks for any and every disease that hits town, unless their genealogical structures are so sturdy that they can withstand any viral onslaught. The child would have also explained to you that an epidemic - or whatever soft and convenient term that the authorities decide to use for it – was bound to emanate from this
liberal churning of water, filth and animal wastes.
The BMC (or whoever it passes the buck to) is responsible for this problem both ways, for allowing people to set up shop in such miserable and pathetic conditions and then failing to either manage the floods or curb the disease that inevitably broke out. In case you were wondering how to find the Mithi river, note that the stench will hit you before the view does.
Worse, as subsequent paragraphs will show, the Mithi river problem, including the potential of flooding in the surrounding areas, has been well documented, discussed and catalogued, even in Parliament. So, the issue is not whether the floods were unprecedented, the issue is what are these pollution creating encroachments doing there in the first place ?
In not being able to address this basic issue, Mumbai's civic officials have, as always, displayed complete and total disregard to their fundamental duties. And yes, you don't need a committee to tell you this, like you wouldn't if you wanted to establish why the garbage truck didn't arrive this morning.
Former BJP MP Kirit Somaiya has filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against the state government, the BMC, the Collector, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the Airport Authority of India, among others, for what he terms their abject apathy and utter negligence. Somiaya was BJP MP for Mumbai North-East (1999-2004) that includes Kurla, Saki-Naka and Powai, the region where the river originates.
While Somaiya does suffer the more than occasional reputation of parachuting into crisis situations and grandstanding for political gains, to be fair, he does his homework. And whatever the reasons, he has been at the Mithi River issue for more than two and a half years. The story is out but the details, as pieced together from various letters to the authorities and their responses, give you an insight
into yet another case of administrative paralysis and frightening systemic apathy.
1. In January 2003, Somaiya first complains to the CPCB, specifically
points out out how industries were dumping their garbage in the river. He also says the BMC had failed to treat the sewage water.
2. In February 2003, CPCB Chairman Dilip Biswas assures Somaiya in a letter that the matter would be investigated by a joint team of CPCB representatives and the Collector of Mumbai Suburban District.
3. In March 2003, the joint team 'investigates' the river and takes water samples. Later, in the same month, March, Union Minister for Environment T R Baalu, in response to a letter, tells Somaiya the matter would be thoroughly investigated.
4. With the monsoons looming, in mid-April 2003, Somaiya dashes off another, prophetic letter to Baalu where he once again refers to the encroachments by the oil and scrap dealers. Further, he says, come monsoon and the overflowing water from the Tulsi, Vihar and Powai lakes of Mumbai would come to Mithi River (The river originates at the Powai/Vihar lakes in north Mumbai). The river wouldn't be able to
take it because of the encroachments and pollution and the nearby residential,commercial, industrial and slum areas would be flooded, Somaiya claims. He predicts, direly, that the chances of floods in the coming monsoon were high and more than 10 lakh people would be affected. Somaiya even requests Baalu to 'pay a personal visit'.
5. The CPCB report that emerges later in April is damning. It acknowledges the pollution caused by 'illegal' oil processing activity and drum washing, which in turn discharged oily wastes. It says that nearly 3,000 such, unauthorized units were operating near the river from Kurla to Mahim (flowing from north-east to west Mumbai).
It talks about hazardous solid wastes lying dumped all along the riverside. It points out that 1.2 lakh people are believed to be staying in hutments along the river and that they discharge about 5 million litres per day (mld) of sewage.
It also concludes, using parameters like Measured Dissolved Oxygen (DO) and Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) that the water is not fit for any use, even in high tide when there is some dilution in the water content. And yet, it says, the river water was being used for bathing near the Mahim confluence point. Incidentally, you can still see slum dwellers bathing if you glance out of the window on the Mahim-Bandra local train stretch.
The report closes off by recommending, in effect, the ridding the river of all the unauthorized, pollution-causing units. It also asks for a time-bound plan to do the same.
6. Meanwhile, Baalu's minister of state, Dilip Singh Ju Dev, responds to Somaiya's second missive, promising a team of senior officers including the CPCB chairman and state government officers would visit the site on May 3, 2003. Even air-conditioned cars for the officials are to be commandeered for the day.
7. In July 2003, Baalu reverts to Somaiya, saying that the river was indeed highly polluted on account of the pollution caused by chemical units/storage godowns. Accordingly, the CPCB has asked the Maharashtra State Pollution Control Board to prepare an action plan, involving the concerned agencies, namely the BMC and the MMRDA.
Three days later, Somaiya forwards the letter to Mumbai Municipal Commissioner K C Shrivastav, asking what action the BMC has taken following the visit of May 3, 2003. Somaiya claims he never received a reply to this letter.
8. In mid July, CPCB's Biswas writes back to Somaiya, saying how he has, as a follow-up of his visit to Mithi river in May, asked the chairman of the MSPCB to prepare an action plan, involving of course, all the concerned agencies once again. Five days later, Somaiya dutifully forwards the letter to the MSPCB chairman, also pointing out that the MMRDA had apparently told him that they would conduct a full
study. He mentions that it was decided to measure the water levels and water logging at the peak of the monsoon.
9. In August 2003, the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Authority responds saying the principal secretary, urban development for Maharashtra had agreed to convene a meeting of all concerned to find a solution to the problem of pollution of the Mithi river. Munshi Lal Gautam, the member secretary, also says the Authority discussed the same issue in its own meeting in January 2003. And, in a final touch of bureaucratese, Gautam requests Somaiya to take up the issue directly with the urban
development secretary since both the BMC and the MMRDA were directly responsible to him.
The paper trail runs cold here on but Somaiya says he pursued it to the point that, after another `joint' meeting, a Rs 65 crore clean-up project was agreed upon, which would be shared three ways between the state government, the Environment ministry and the MMRDA. Work was supposed to begin in December 2003, obviously it never did.
Elections arrived in 2004 and Somaiya (he lost his seat) obviously did not pursue the matter with equal vigour. He says many of his papers and letters were washed out by the rains of 26th July, after his office was submerged under 4 feet of water.
The letters demonstrate that the situation was crying for action from day one, not for investigations, surveys and guess what, committees. The correspondence also shows that like everywhere else in the city, the BMC sleeps through its most basic duties for which it collects taxes and pays its employees their salaries – of keeping Mumbai clean and free of illegal encroachments.
Focussing on Mithi is important, but to think that it's the only cause of Terrible Tuesday is making a terrible mistake – for instance, every storm drainage system in the city (5 major ones) is clogged and encroached upon. Mithi is a larger manifestation of the rot that pervades the civic authority in specific and the state administration in general. An administration which instead of halting all encroachment, conjures up new ways to release public property to politicians and land sharks.
An administration which should be out on the roads recovering if not preventing more public land from being eaten up by slum lords and encroachers, instead of allowing its employees to collect haftas from them. An administration that has set up Mumbai to become the biggest, unmitigated, urban disaster, possibly in the world. Cleaning up Mithi is the start. A complete clean-up of the administration must follow.