India Uncut

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Friday, August 05, 2005

When it pours

A shorter version of this piece was published in today's edition of the Asian Wall Street Journal (August 5-7, P11). I can't find a link online, and it's a subscription site anyway, so here you go.

One moment you are connected to the world in a global hub of the worldwide village; the next, the lights go off, the phone networks cease to function, and the water rises outside, creeping up on cars and first-floor apartments like an insidious idea. What does it take to shut down South Asia’s financial capital, Bombay? A few hours of rain, that’s all.

On July 26, Bombay received 944 millimeters of rainfall, the highest ever-recorded in India, and more than the average for a season in the city. (London gets less in a year.) The city ceased to function. Power and telecommunications went dead in parts of the city, the airport shut down and trains stopped running. Traffic came to a halt, as if the vehicles on the street were stuck to it. The water rose as high as 15 feet in some suburbs, and the highways looked like rivers from where the poor wet crow flies. People across the city were rendered immobile and incommunicado, as a modern city was shut down by an ancient element: water.

Water is to Bombay what Kryptonite is to Superman. Normally this is a city where nothing stops. It swirls with movement, seemingly chaotic but always purposeful, and even in the late hours of the night, when the rest of Indian sleeps, Bombay buzzes with activity, connected to the rest of the world, bearing the fortunes of India. Unless it rains heavily.

Every year Bombay is badly hit on at least a couple of days during the monsoons, as the city shuts down because of too much rain. Weather forecasts rarely give enough notice, and a more accurate warning is the crying of street dogs. As rain lashes down and the water level rises, they keep moving along the streets in search of higher ground. When there is none to be found, and they cannot escape the water, they start crying. They do not do this in packs, mostly, and it is not as conspicuous as wolves wailing at the wind. So it is often lost amid the many other noises of a busy city.

Then, across the city, as if souls are leaving bodies at the scene of a mass suicide, drivers abandon their cars. The water is often knee-deep by now, and traffic has stopped moving. Trains stop plying, buses empty out, and commuters across the city begin wading through water to get home.

It is no picnic. The water is dark-brown and muddy, straight from the sewer. It is effectively Bombay's drainage system come overground. Bits of garbage float on the water, as do plastic bags of all colors: red, green, yellow, pink. Even India's debris is colorful. And the water swirls sometimes, enough to whip the sandals of your feet so that you are forced to walk barefoot. You could roll your pants up, but the water can reach your armpits, and there's only so far that a trouser can go.

Many people remain where they are. In their schools or offices, where they might spend a hungry night, with restaurants either partly submerged or unable, for obvious reasons, to deliver. Expecting mothers who need to deliver are unable to reach nursing homes, or if they are already there, their husbands cannot make it. Some commuters stay in their cars, hungry and, as the water rises around them, thirsty. (This year some people died like this as their autolock systems prevented them from leaving their cars, and they suffocated in their underwater vehicles.) Waiting can be dangerous, and that is what drives so many to walk.

A walk home could mean 30 kilometers of trudging through the dirtiest obstacle course on the planet. Some of my friends once walked from the southern edge of the city to a northern suburb, a trek that took them more than eight hours. At one place, the water was chest high, and one of them needed to relieve himself. He did not bother to unzip. "What would have been the point of that?" he asked me later.

The conditions can be brutal, but the people are not. Bombay is a city known for its relentless pace, but if you slow down to take it in, you find that people can be very kind to you. Like the autorickshaw-driver who dropped a schoolgirl home after she spent 11 hours in his vehicle, and refused to take money for his efforts. Like the people everywhere who allow you to use their mobile phones to call home, or to take a sip of their water, even though it is now an incredibly precious commodity in this time of its excess. Like the men who pulled me out of a manhole that almost sucked me in when I was wading through thigh-deep water. Indeed, like all the people who stand around manholes in waist-deep water so that no one steps into them accidentally, and the families that cook food all day and then wade out to distribute it.

A combination of factors combined to make this year worse than most other years. To begin with, it rained much more: so much more that buildings across the street looked like ghostly images, and one could not be certain if they really were there. Secondly, the sea was at high tide. When that is so, it rushes into those parts of the drainage system that have an outlet into the sea, and the rainwater doesn't seep away fast enough. And the water down below mixes with the water on top.

But partly to blame was Bombay itself. The garbage disposal systems of the city are inadequate. Construction is growing in the northern suburbs of the city faster than the infrastructure can keep up. Environmentalists claimed that the reclamation of parts of the Mithi river, near some of the worst-affected suburbs, caused it to overflow when the cloudburst took place. And, most importantly, there was clearly no disaster management plan in place for such a situation.

The result was that more than 150,000 people were trapped in the railway stations alone, as the metallic monsters that bear six million people every day lay inertly on the water like dead, floating earthworms. Slums and shanty townships were also badly affected, with some houses simply being washed away – addresses wiped out – and others being submerged. There was a landslide in parts of Mumbai, and many people died in a stampede caused by rumors of a tsunami.

Television channels showed pictures of the city from above, cityscapes turning into seascapes, with rescue workers on inflatable boats picking up lone swimmers. They ran scrolls at the bottom of the screen with messages like "Ramesh Shah, call home soon, parents worried," as if Ramesh Shah was anywhere near a television set or a phone that worked.

The rain ceased, temporarily, after a day, but began again last weekend. Some suburbs remained flooded in the interim, and did not get power and water supply for a week. Where the water receded, the streets piled up with massive amounts of rotting garbage, onto which crows descended and stray dogs lingered. I came across the carcass of a buffalo lying in the middle of the road, which for some mysterious reason was wearing a helmet. As many as 1,500 dead cattle punctuated the streets of Bombay, and the city government refused to clear them up, saying that it was the owners’ responsibility.

It would all take time to clear up, but eventually the city would function again, and everyone would feel proud of living in such an important city. And the dogs, those that were left and were now dry, would stop crying. Until next year
amit varma, 12:04 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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