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Get angry, dammit & stay so

By Govindraj Ethiraj
August 01, 2005 09:46 IST
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"How can we allow them to get away with it?" my colleague screamed. It was past 10 pm in the office, two days after the great Mumbai flood and another colleague had got off a phone. He had heard rumours that the sluice gates at Vihar (a large lake supplying water and located in north-east Mumbai) were to be opened. Residents living near and around the lake were panicking.

My colleague was furious. "Why isn't the BMC (BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation) issuing a clarification? Surely they know about it by now." As it happened, a private television channel was on air in minutes with a statement from Mumbai's municipal commissioner, around the same time we began calling other officials there.

My colleague then called up someone she knew at one of the FM stations and told them about it. Admirably and quite instantaneously, as they had through the previous two days, they picked it up and relayed it.

Millions of Mumbaikars, mostly belonging to North Mumbai, have felt anger in the last few days. Anger at the administration for the lack of an early warning system. Anger at the lack of or the terrible quality of infrastructure. Some people I know have felt anger at themselves for not anticipating the 15-hour journey home from their offices in south and central Mumbai.

"If only I had stayed back in office," said a lady colleague, after spending that fateful night in a taxi. She returned to work, like many others, two days later.

Some were too shocked to be angry. One colleague wading through Kalina (Santacruz East, a Mumbai suburb), one of the two or three worst-hit areas, recalled a dead body floating past, unable to suppress an involuntary shudder as he did. "It was like going to hell and back," he said.

Another colleague from the same area returned to her building two days after the deluge to find that two ladies living on the ground floor had died, trapped in by the rising water, unable to open the doors. The mother managed to throw her two young children out of the window. They survived.

Terrible Tuesday: Mumbai copes with a calamity

The town of Kalyan, north of Mumbai, is littered with carcasses of buffaloes and, if anyone cared, some humans as well. The town has gone without power, drinking water and food for four days now. Newspaper reports have it that two days ago, some 2,000 residents stormed the office of the civic administration and let loose on the vehicles and a towing machine kept there.

Back in the heart of Mumbai, in several suburbs, including of course Santacruz, Kurla and Saki Naka, people demonstrated for resumption of power.

Mumbai is angry. Not for the first time and surely not the last. Unfortunately, as always, it faces the danger of this anger dissipating and flowing away, into routine, into the usual, private, occasional outbursts. It risks dissolving into memories, into dinner table cribs and beer bar stories, into water cooler accounts in offices and, perhaps, bureaucratic laments.

This is how it has been: for all the city's spirit of bravery and resilience, it utterly lacks the ability to get truly angry.

This needs to change. Mumbaikars need to direct and vent their present anger effectively, individually, collectively and most importantly, over a sustained period. The present anger is and can be focussed on ensuring the BMC or the local administration in Mumbai's outlying towns do the basic, minimum work for the taxes they collect from their citizens and for the salaries they get paid.

Did you know that the BMC dutifully took the two state government declared holidays and stayed off. Sure, emergency services must have worked, but what kind of signal does this send? If this does not make you, the Mumbaikar, angry, what does? But the bigger question everyone needs to ask is what next?

An angry city needs to focus on the fundamental issues that have resulted in its inability to cope with a flood. As an enlightened colleague in the profession asked the state's finance minister on prime time television two days ago, "Isn't it time you re-looked at the reckless construction and development we are seeing in the city, particularly in the suburbs?"

Environmental activist Shyam Chainani also present concurred. Obviously, there was no answer. Did he even see a connection?

Instead of wondering in amazement at the shiny fa├žades of the king-size malls in the north Mumbai suburbs of Malad and Mulund, an angry city needs to ask where is the infrastructure to support all this. It isn't there, let's not even debate it. Instead of gazing up wide-eyed at the ever-rising skyscrapers and marvelling at the riches that fund it, an angry city needs to stop all further construction and take stock.

The new skyscrapers of South Mumbai will not only put tremendous strain on roads but also suck up drinking water meant for existing, older buildings. But South Mumbai is not the issue here, decadent North Mumbai is.

An angry city should divest politicians like Narayan Rane of their burgeoning police protection detail and transfer them to work for the citizens. This writer can personally quote examples of why citizens of this city need greater protection from Mr Rane and his family members rather than the other way round.

An angry city should get these politicians out on the streets, to work, not to 'tour affected areas.' Another colleague saw former minister Kripa Shankar Singh walking around in Vakola (Santacruz East) with his pajamas held up. She couldn't help but notice the posse of Sten Gun toting guards that accompanied him.

Okay, let me quote a personal example. In a three-hour drive from mid-town Mumbai to the suburb of Bandra on the night of the heavy rains, there was not one policeman to be seen. Ask around, everyone has a similar observation to make. So, at the cost of sounding totally naive, may one ask; what's the ideal thing these policemen be doing on a night like that?

An angry city should ask why we have the lowest people-to-open space ratio in the world and what we are doing about it? Mumbai has 0.03 acres of open space per thousand inhabitants. New York has 5.53 acres. And please, lets not treat this as a frivolous statistic. It affects you and me and was one of the reasons millions of citizens spent that night on the roads or died.

Does anyone think of these things when permission is given to build on open spaces or tear down smaller cottages and independent houses to build multi-storeyed buildings? The suburb of Bandra is a classic example. The tiny lanes of this suburb are already jammed with traffic and the construction shows no sign of stopping. As we speak, the administration is fighting residents to hand over more open land for construction, at Bandra Reclamation.

An angry city needs to focus on critical issues and agitate constantly:

Overcrowding, rampant construction and lack of infrastructure.

North of Andheri, beyond the turn for the international airport, the much-touted MMRDA (Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority) assisted roads returned to their pothole status within weeks. The deluge of July 26 needn't have happened. The BMC might blame the MMRDA for clogging the sewer pipes and vice-versa.

That's not the point, gentlemen of the BMC, who hopefully have returned to work now. This city is overflowing, to the point of self-destruction. Infrastructure for a few million is now supporting 18 million. And it will become 28 million in just 20 years. And, except for one or two honourable exceptions, there is not a clue nor care in the political and bureaucratic class, that this is a burning issue that needs to be tackled now.

An angry city needs to look within, see how its own citizens' atrocious civic sense worsens the situation. That means every citizen has to think twice before tossing plastic wrappers onto the streets, even whilst spending thousands of rupees in beautifying their living rooms.

Let's admit it, Mumbaikars can now count amongst the filthiest in the world, the commendable efforts of the Advanced Locality Management (ALMs) notwithstanding. This filth clogs drains, prevents easy cleaning and can lead to spread of disease.

The biggest threat is not the next deluge or 90 cm of rain. It is the return to normalcy. Of letting our anger fade away. Of focussing our energies on catching the 9.03 local. If that happens, we have no business blaming anyone else.

The author works for CNBC-TV18. The views expressed here are his own.

Terrible Tuesday: Mumbai copes with a calamity

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Govindraj Ethiraj