Just before the rains made their spectacular appearance, the US consulate in the city issued an advisory to all its citizens resident in the city, as well as to all other tourists and travelling businessmen. The advisory carried a precise list of the dangers that lay ahead in the city during the June-September period. While warning Americans to avoid low-lying areas, which tend to get flooded every year, the advisory also requested them to pass up the temptation of walking around in water-logged areas because many manholes do not have covers. And, most of these death-traps do not even carry any warnings.
Predictably, the municipal authorities were indignant. But the commissioner came up with the best line: while appearing huffy about the insolence of the consular staff, he trotted out statistics about how “only” 10 people had died from drowning in open manholes in the past seven years! Apart from displaying extraordinary insensitivity about the deaths, he also seems to have passed the first test of a seasoned bureaucrat: when on the defensive, throw out numbers. * So, even as the city welcomed the 2008 monsoons with growing trepidation, as well as huge misgivings about the municipal corporation’s continuing infrastructure deficit and apathy, the commissioner one day simply decided that the most important issue confronting them was not rain-preparedness, but language.
On June 24, when the monsoons had truly and properly announced its annual visit, the commissioner proposed and piloted a motion in the corporation that the organisation should conduct all its business in Marathi. * Then the rains came. And how. In just the first few days of June, the downpour was almost equivalent to 40% of the city’s average total rainfall. Last Tuesday, after it had rained all night and all of early morning, the city woke up to find their daily commute washed out. All the familiar ingredients were present: widespread flooding, cancelled train services, frantic calls, traffic gridlock on the main arteries, and confusing signals.
When questioned about the repeated failure of the city’s drainage system, the commissioner came up with the optimum solution: if you can’t lick it, grin and bear it. Mumbaikars, like the inhabitants of The Netherlands, should get used to floods, he suggested. The Dutch were, obviously, not amused. After their last devastating floods in 1953, the Dutch have created infrastructure to keep the sea waters from entering their low-lying country. They’ve now even offered technology to help the city cope with flooding in low-lying areas.
* Unfazed by the raised eyebrows and criticism – another stellar quality demanded from aspiring senior bureaucrats – the commissioner then proceeded to further buttress his hypothesis that floods have, indeed, become an unavoidable annual fixture. He brandished the copy of a journal – Environment and Urbanisation – which said that global warming had raised sea levels and that would cause heavy flooding in Mumbai, among many other cities across the world (Jakarta, Shanghai, Tokyo). Translated, this means that the corporation is helpless and that the flooding is inevitable, no matter how much it tries. The sea levels are increasing – and there is a scientific study to prove it – and the corporation should not be held responsible for flooding in the city. Well, he may have a point there; global warming and the melting of the polar ice-cap have certainly raised sea levels. But two points arise here. One, there is no conclusive evidence to prove what has raised sea levels around Mumbai: global warming, or localised problems. Second, there is no mention of how the other coastal cities mentioned in the report have undertaken large investments in infrastructure. But, most importantly, the commissioner is yet to come up with an explanation on why the project to improve the drainage system is lying still-born. If after all this, he still does not get a promotion, then nothing ever probably will.