By Anuj Chopra | Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor
BOMBAY -- When will the rain stop? That's the question everyone is asking in Bombay (Mumbai), the financial capital of India, since the monsoon began hammering the city eight days ago. Last Tuesday, a record 37 inches of water dropped on the city in one day.
Although the rains have slowed to no more than six inches a day, the water collected isn't receding, leaving parts of the city underwater. Residents of Kalina and Kurla, some of the worst-hit areas, had eight feet of floodwater to deal with. The Army and Navy are still evacuating people from homes. More than 900 people are believed dead in and around Bombay.
"I've not seen so much water in Bombay in my life ever before," Jagdish Kalra, a resident of suburban Bombay. "I didn't know if I should save myself or my belongings." Knee-deep water has filled up Mr. Kalra's residence, damaging most of his furniture and sending his clothes, shoes, and utensils floating in murky waters.
The shutting down of India's second city and the loss of life has prompted municipal officials to start heeding past warnings from environmentalists about development run amok. With dreams of becoming "the Shanghai of India," Bombay is a city bursting at its seams, cramming 16,000 people per square mile. Poorly planned development and neglected infrastructure prevented much of the water from draining harmlessly out to sea, say critics.
The city's storm water drainage system is archaic. Water drains through the more than 100-year-old pipes at an abnormally slow pace of one inch per hour. Only one-third of the 124-mile stretch of this drainage system has been modernized. The municipal commissioner of Bombay, Johny Joseph, assured modernization of the remaining part will be taken up, something which will cost $275 million.
Surface drains, meanwhile, had become clogged by indiscriminate dumping of garbage, according to Mr. Joseph. The resulting pressure on the underground drains, he says, led to the failure of the entire drainage system.
Rampant development in recent years also choked off natural avenues for water drainage. According to Accommodation Times, a real estate and property market publication, today there are more than 12,000 sq. feet of construction projects going on in full swing in Bombay, many of them unchecked and unauthorized.
Environmental experts say that the reclaiming of large tracts of land against all rules, laws, and expert advice, for construction is blocking the natural course of flood waters flowing into the sea.
"People in Bombay seem to suffer from ecological illiteracy," says Darryl D'monte, a well-known author and environmentalist. "We believe we can construct indiscriminately anywhere without considering cataclysmic ecological repercussions of it."
The Bandra-Worli sealink project, a multimillion dollar effort to link the western suburbs to the island city of Bombay, has constricted the mouth of the city's Mithi River.
"The river is the city's biggest storm water drain. If you constrict the mouth of this river, how can water escape into the sea?" asked Mr. D'monte.
"We're paying the price for development," Bittu Sahgal, a well-known environmentalist and editor of Sanctuary Asia magazine said.
Nine years ago Mr. Sahgal was on the Ministry of Environment's infrastructure expert committee. He rejected the Bandra-Worli road project three times because of the flood danger. He was thrown off the committee and the project was subsequently cleared.
The damage caused by the Mithi River flooding, says Sahgal, is probably going to be around $460 million - at least twice the cost of the Bandra-Worli project when it was approved.
Environmentalists also decry the Bandra-Kurla complex in suburban Bombay, which houses world-class business centers - a swanky symbol of urban prosperity. It is built on large tracts of mangroves.
"Mangroves are the best barriers between land and sea," says Deepak Apte, who heads the Conservation Department, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). "It's alarming how 70 percent of the mangrove area around Bombay has been reclaimed."
This disaster in the past eight days is expected to jolt the civic administration and the government - who've been at the receiving end of public anger since the flooding began - into taking preventative action. Ruminations about ways to avert such a tragedy in the future have begun.
There is talk of a more comprehensive disaster management plan by the government, something discussed after the tsunami, but which never materialized. The Bombay government is considering whether to partially implement recommendations made over a decade ago by foreign consultants. The 1993 Metclafe and Eddy report suggested ways to upgrade the city's drainage system.
And Joseph, the municipal commissioner, says he recognizes the need for an independent communication link to warn people about such disasters well in advance.
In the meantime, Bombay residents are working to restore their city. Raju, a laborer struggling in waist-deep water in the badly affected area of Kalina, joked: "They couldn't make it a Shanghai, at least they've made it Venice."