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Maharashtra deluge

Articles on commission
Citizens' panel to probe Mumbai floods

The Hindu
03 September 2005

Special Correspondent

To document what took place and examine loss of property and damage

Former Supreme Court judge to head the commission Report to be submitted within three months

MUMBAI: The former Supreme Court judge, Justice P.B. Sawant, will head a Concerned Citizens' Commission that will begin a series of public hearings on Saturday to determine the causes and factors that led to the massive flooding of Mumbai. The commission plans to submit a comprehensive report and recommendation to the Maharashtra Government within three months.

Announcing this, Cyrus Gazdar, managing director of Airfreight Limited and a member of the Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG), one of 35 groups supporting the commission, said the first task would be to understand what happened on July 26 and the days after that. Although a natural disaster, it was "compounded by a whole set of human actions and inactions." The first of the seven terms of reference for the commission states: "To develop a reliable picture of the floods in Greater Mumbai and document what actually took place, the extent of damage to lives and dignity of persons, along with a detailed examination of property loss and damage, linked critically to the issue of relief and compensation."

Besides Mr. Justice Sawant, the other members of the commission represent a range of interest groups. They include Nasser Munjee, chairman of the Development Credit Bank and former managing director of the Infrastructure Development Finance Company, Sharad Kale, former Municipal Commissioner, Chandrashekar Prabhu, architect and former president of the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development AuthorityTeesta Setalvad, activist and founder of Citizens for Justice and Peace, Shyam Chainani, founder of BEAG, Prof. Pushpa Bhave, social activist and academic, Datta Ishwalkar, president of the Girni Kamgar Sangarsh Samiti, Suresh Bhosale, Dalit activist and Darryl D'Monte, chair of the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India.

Flood victims get ‘hearing’
The Indian Express
05 September 2005

Express News Service

Mumbai, September 4: HELP came from churches and temples instead of medical camps. Many of us contracted skin diseases, dengue and malaria. Since enough medicines were unavailable, we were told to buy them from medical stores. But how could we buy medicines when we’d lost everything in the floods?’’ asked Mahadev Baban, a deluge victim, speaking at a deposition presided over by a panel set up by a citizens’ forum—Concerned Citizens’ Commission—at the Social Welfare Centre, Kurla.

‘‘We suffered losses of Rs 30,000, but didn’t receive any compensation—just a few foodgrains,’’ added Juman Ali of Azad Chawl, Kurla. The commission was set up on September 3 and will hear victims’ claims for three weeks.

The commission was organised by non-governmental organisation Conversation Action Trust.

The panel, comprising Justice P B Sawant, founder-chairperson of Citizens for Justice and Peace Teesta Setalvad, Ruia College professor Pushpa Bhave and veteran journalist Darryl D’Monte, presided over a series of depositions involving members of the public and the government.

‘‘The prime concern is to inquire into the immediate and long-term causes that led to the collapse of the city’s administration during the deluge and also the nature of the aid and compensation doled out to those affected,’’ said Setalvad.

Saturday’s hearing witnessed about 350 applicants, while in spite of the incessant rains, Sunday saw close to 300 applicants.

Of the 100 depositions received, most said they were unhappy with the compensation. According to Setalvad, many have not even received the promised compensation of Rs 5,000 as they could not get back to their houses—which were water-logged—for the seven days when the compensation was being distributed.

Many victims also received only half the promised foodgrain and fuel provisions.
Terrible Tuesday effect: Government in the dock again

The Indian Express
09 September 2005

City environmentalists accuse local corporators of mismanagement during the July 26 flood relief work

Express News Service

Mumbai, September 8: ‘‘My house was submerged under water for two days. Everything has been destroyed and what was left was stolen. My brothers have lost their jobs because the company they worked for shut down. We have no money now.’’

Shehnaaz Khazamullah (18), a resident of Muslim Society at Jarimari, was one among the hundreds who thronged St Jude’s Church on Thursday for a public hearing on the July 26 floods conducted by the Concerned Citizens Committee (CCC).

‘‘We don’t know when we will get compensated, if at all we do. We wanted everyone to know our plight,” said a victim, refusing to be named.

The CCC, a citizens’ forum, is working to get depositions of flood-hit victims to file a report to the government with recommendations for disaster management.

On the panel were environmentalists Debi Goenka of the Conservation Action Trust, Gerson D’Cunha from AGNI and Cyrus Gazgar from the Bombay Environment Action Group.

Gazgar said: ‘‘When the corporators got to know of our visit to the area, they started handing out ration coupons. The garbage was hastily collected and dumped into Mithi river.’’

  However, former minister Nasim Khan said: ‘‘The government immediately distributed relief in the flood-hit areas. We have official records of ration distribution which can be verified.”
Mumbai after the rain: piecemeal policies

The Hindu
09 September 2005

Kalpana Sharma

Mumbai might have survived the floods but the challenge that people in the city now face is the deluge of piecemeal policymaking.

IT IS well past a month since the deluge of July 26 that paralysed Mumbai and other parts of Maharashtra. The question people in the city are asking is whether the Vilasrao Deshmukh Government has learnt any lessons from it.

On the face of it, one would think it has not. Even if we try and forget the Government's slow response to the crisis, the steps it has sought to take to correct the problem indicate considerable confusion and an absence of focus.

The first example was the Government's response to the health crisis that presented itself within days of the deluge. Hundreds of people were being admitted to hospitals with fevers and gastro-intestinal infections. On August 11, the State Government called a press conference to brief the media about the situation post-flood. In the course of the briefing, Health Minister Vimal Mundada stated categorically that Mumbai faced an "epidemic" of leptospirosis. This was endorsed by the Director General of Health Services for Maharashtra, Subhash Salunkhe, who said that any minute the Municipal Commissioner would issue a notification announcing an epidemic.

But somehow between that statement in Mantralaya and a few hours later, something changed. And the "epidemic" vanished into thin air. There was apparently no epidemic. At least that is what the political bosses who rule this city decided. That was little cause for comfort for millions of Mumbai's citizens who had spent many hours in sewage-laden water on that fateful day and night and who were now in imminent danger of contracting leptospirosis.

Fortunately, Mumbai still has a reasonable public health system consisting of municipal and government hospitals and health posts. Although a little slow off the mark, they were activated and got to work to meet the flood of people with complaints ranging from fevers, to vomiting and diarrhoea. Health teams did fan out to distribute basic medication, chlorine tablets for water purification, and spray the drains and garbage piles. A potential "epidemic" was averted. However, there are still pockets in Mumbai where no assistance has reached.

Apart from confused signals from different departments, recent policy decisions fail to convey that the Government has a clear understanding of why a city like Mumbai was so badly affected by the recent floods. It seems to respond to whoever shouts the loudest rather than taking in the full picture.

Take for instance, the focus on the Mithi River that runs through the city from east to west. Environmentalists and the media argued that curbing the flow of the river had contributed to the massive flooding along its banks. But instead of recognising that the Mithi river problem is only one of many issues that reflect the manner in which Mumbai's development has been pursued, the Government responded by setting up a Mithi River Authority. Why is another committee needed when the Government already has up to four reports on the river and the problems caused by unchecked development? Instead of acting on the information it has, the Government has sidestepped this by forming a committee. As has often happened in the past, the Bombay High Court has intervened, in response to a writ petition, and directed the municipal corporation to get cracking on removing encroachments blocking the flow of the river.

Along the same lines is the recent decision to ban plastic bags. No one would object to this as it is well known that plastic is non-biodegradable and the ubiquitous plastic bag is an environmental menace. It is also true that drains were clogged with plastic bags thereby exacerbating the flooding. But the solution is not just a ban, but how to phase out the use of plastic. Past efforts to ban thin plastic bags failed for two reasons: one, other kinds of plastic bags were freely available and two, there was little effort made to educate the public about the environmental consequences of plastic waste.

Apart from these two bans, and appointing committees, there is little engagement with the basic issue of Mumbai's development. Take another example. On August 22, Sadaf Manzil in central Mumbai, in an area better known as the former stamping ground of Dawood Ibrahim, collapsed at night leading to 11 deaths and many injuries. There is nothing new in this. Every monsoon, old buildings in central Mumbai fall down. All these are ostensibly "under repair" or even "condemned." Yet people continue to live in them and despite notices to vacate, refuse to do so. Until the building falls. Then they are forced to leave. But many tenants argue that the repairs are so pointless that instead of strengthening these old buildings, they weaken them. People are also reluctant to leave because once they are moved out into "transit camps," dreary one-room tenements, they are virtually forgotten for years, sometimes decades.

These old and dilapidated buildings are another part of the developmental problem that Mumbai faces and the Government seems unable to tackle. When the fourth building collapsed within a week in Mumbai on August 27, the Chief Minister announced that people would be asked to leave the over 100 buildings listed as "most unsafe for living" within a week. The week is over and only a few families of the estimated 900 that need to be rehabilitated have moved. Even the transit accommodation ostensibly available for these families has been "encroached" upon by families renting them in collusion with housing board officials. How did the Chief Minister intend to tackle in a week what had not happened in decades?

"Cessed" buildings

At the same time, a policy is urgently needed to deal with the problem of over 19,000 "cessed" buildings in Mumbai, that is structures that are on rents that were frozen in 1940. Building owners have lost interest in these structures and the tenants do not bother to repair them either. As a result, tenants are asked to pay a "cess" towards repairs to the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA). The "repairs" however are often mythical, consisting of no more than some poles and props that do little to prevent the structure from collapsing in heavy rain. In the last decade, over 2,000 buildings have collapsed, averaging over 200 a year.

To encourage builders to repair these buildings, the Government amended one of the development control rules. A builder is permitted to demolish a "cessed" structure and rebuild it on the condition that he accommodate the original tenants. His incentive is an enhanced FSI (floor space index), which allows him to build a taller structure in which the additional housing can be sold to help recover costs. The consequence of this policy has been a spurt of reconstruction of cessed buildings in good locations, even if they are not entirely dilapidated. Scores of tall, thin buildings have sprung up in the older part of Mumbai without considering whether the infrastructure in the locality can support such new buildings. On the other hand, there are still thousands of precarious structures that have been left to the mercy of the MHADA.

At the heart of the mess in Mumbai are issues like this that show the intricate nexus that has existed between every government, whatever its political hue, and the builders. The city has become one large construction site. There is open flouting of rules. Drains are blocked with the construction waste, the ambient air quality in many areas is deplorable, and the noise levels are unbelievable. At the same time, there is little discussion about changing rent laws so that better and affordable rental housing can come on to the market in a city starved of decent housing and for rationalising rules governing FSI so that there is some cohesion between new structures and the infrastructure around them.

Inevitably, citizens have had to turn to the Bombay High Court. Three civic minded citizens have challenged the Government's decision to change the development control rules that govern "cessed" buildings. As a result, for the moment there is a stay on new constructions. There is also a writ petition on the Government's poor response to the floods. This has forced the Government to present an accurate picture of the damage and death caused by the rain.

Another petition questions the Government's policy, or rather non-policy, on slums. And yet another is on the complex and crucial issue of the development of 600 acres of textile mill land in the heart of Mumbai. In addition, a Concerned Citizens' Commission, supported by over 35 civil society groups, has begun a series of public hearings on the flood and plans to present a report to the Government within three months.

Mumbai might have survived the deluge and the "epidemic" but the challenge that people in the city now face is the deluge of piecemeal policymaking.

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