Above: Water-logging on railway tracks is a regular feature in Mumbai during the monsoon/Photo: UNI
One hopes that the task force set up by the Maharashtra government to study the climate change will not be another opportunity for officials to go on a foreign jaunt at taxpayers’ expense
By Debi Goenka
Following unprecedented floods, the Maharashtra government has decided to set up a task force comprising local and global experts to study the impact of climate change on Mumbai. It will study measures taken against flooding and unplanned reclamation in cities such as Venice, Geneva and London and coordinate with the European Climate Change Programme of the European Union to prepare a blueprint. According to officials, the task force will be set up by the environment department in coordination with Mumbai First, a not-for-profit, policy-influencing think-tank.
The fact that the financial capital of India is totally unprepared to deal with climate change is no secret. Despite the fact that Mumbai is a coastal city, surrounded on three sides by the sea (and creeks), and the Ministry of Environment and Forests being aware that sea levels will rise due to climate change, the organisation that plans for the future of Mumbai seems oblivious to the whale in the room. Despite the great floods of 2005 that killed a thousand Mumbaikars, the only action that has been taken is to spend hundreds of crores of rupees on dredging the Mithi river and illegally building embankments to convert a river into a canal—something that has never worked anywhere in the world and never will.
Even the latest development plan of Mumbai that was approved in 2018 and which will govern its future till 2034, barely mentions the issue of climate change and does not prescribe any planning initiatives or solutions to tackle this huge problem that confronts us.
Newspapers had earlier quoted the chairman of Mumbai First, Narinder Nayar, saying that it intends to study measures taken against flooding and unplanned reclamation in Venice, Geneva and London. Is the government serious, or is it just one more opportunity to take a bunch of bureaucrats on an international jaunt at tax payers’ expense? To study flooding and unplanned reclamation in these cities?
The website of Mumbai First says this about its chairman: “Narinder Nayar believes in the dictum ‘think local and act global’. Despite his busy schedule as Founder and Chief Executive of Concast (India) and Director of several other companies, he still finds time to promote several other social and business initiatives. Narinder has been actively and passionately involved with the Mumbai Transformation Programme, which is spearheaded by the Hon’ble Chief Minister. As Chairman of Mumbai First, Narinder was instrumental in arranging a study together with McKinsey on how Mumbai could be transformed into a world-class city over the next 10 years. Following this study, several initiatives have been taken by the Maharashtra government including constituting a Citizens’ Action Group of which the chief minister is chairman and Narinder is the vice-chairman…. He has led a team of experts from Mumbai to Singapore for discussions with Urban Renewal Authority (URA) and to study the measures adopted in Singapore for long-term planning. Based on the Singapore experience, Narinder advocated the need for a 40-year vision document for the Mumbai Metropolitan Region.”
In 2003, Mumbai First released a “Summary of Recommendations” on transforming Mumbai into a world-class city (over the next 10 years). This was based on a report prepared by McKinsey, the international consultancy firm. Unfortunately, while the summary is now available on the Mumbai First website, the report has never been made public. What is interesting, however, is the fact that the summary does not mention “climate change”—in fact, it does not even mention “sea”. It is, therefore, ironical that Mumbai First now wants the Maharashtra government to go to London, Venice and Geneva to study climate change, unplanned reclamation, flooding and the rise in sea level.
After the disastrous flooding of Mumbai in 2005, the Conservation Action Trust set up a Concerned Citizens Commission, headed by a retired judge of the Supreme Court, Justice PB Sawant. Over 13,000 citizens were interviewed through a series of public hearings held in the worst affected parts of the city. Bureaucrats responsible for running the city were also invited to participate. However, not a single bureaucrat from the Maharashtra government or the municipal corporation or the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Planning Authority turned up. The report was later sent to all municipal corporators, MLAs and secretary-level bureaucrats in Maharashtra and to some in Delhi. The only response received was from one MLA requesting a copy in Marathi. To quote from the report:
“The report also emphasises that there had been warnings that such a breakdown in the life of Mumbai could well occur due to such schemes as the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority’s Bandra-Kurla Complex, which has been built on mangroves. Or the ill-advised Bandra-Worli Sea Link, which narrowed the mouth of the Mithi river as did extensions to the airport runways several years earlier. The Commission cannot but comment that the future of Mumbai is being strangulated by the politician-builder nexus, which has vitiated even the redevelopment of slums.
“However, as the rough assessment of the financial loss suffered by millions of people in what is one of the world’s populous cities shows, it actually cost the government and ordinary citizens a great amount in terms of losses of life, health, belongings, workplaces and earnings. In other words, the city cannot afford not to spend on measures to prevent or mitigate natural disasters, because this deluge cost them dearly a far bigger amount. What is more, there are isolated instances of flooding virtually every monsoon, which the city treats as ‘normal’, but which also take a heavy toll in human, material and financial terms. Imagine the overwhelming chaos if there is a major chemical or nuclear accident instead, on the lines of the Bhopal gas tragedy 22 years ago.”
However, with climate change and the rise in sea level, flooding will continue. Low-lying land reclaimed from the sea would be the most vulnerable. So would be the reclaimed lands along the west coast that would be subject to increased battering. It is unlikely that the sea walls and tetrapods built by the PWD and BMC will offer any significant protection. Badly designed and conceptualised projects, such as the Brihanmumbai Storm Water Disposal System will actually aggravate the problem since all that is being done is to concretise banks and beds of rivers and convert these natural water bodies into canals—a complete failure the world over.
There is a need to take action to make Mumbai immune to climate change. The city, like most of India, is dependent on monsoons for survival, and unlike Chennai, does not even have a desalination plant for drinking water supply. Attempts to reduce water consumption remain mainly on paper and some lip service is paid to rainwater harvesting.
Instead of focusing on upgrading the existing suburban train system, the Maharashtra government is investing in building parallel metro systems. However, given the fact that the Metro fares will be much higher, it is not clear whether a majority of Mumbaikars will be able to afford it. The recent steps taken by the municipal commissioner to revamp the BEST bus system is indeed welcome and an example of what can be achieved by prioritising and encouraging private transport.
The following steps need to be taken to mitigate the impact of climate change: Stop new constructions on open spaces, stop increasing the FSI, stop building the coastal road and other infrastructure projects, stop destroying trees, forests and mangroves, strengthen the CRZ notification, take steps to reduce private cars and two-wheelers on roads and shut down highly polluting coal-based power plants located within the city and replace them with renewable energy.
The last thing one needs is another report that starts with international junkets, generates contracts for consultants, and thousands of crores of business for cement and metallurgy firms who will be happy to keep building roads, flyovers and tunnels even after the city is submerged.
—The writer is Executive Trustee, Conservation Action Trust