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Why Mumbai Is A Disaster Just Waiting To Happen (And It’s Scary)!

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26/7 is a date that sends shivers down the spines of most Mumbaikar. On this day in 2005, the city that never sleeps came to a complete standstill because of extraordinarily heavy rainfall.

Ravikant Ghanekar, an IT professional and a resident of Sakinaka, recalls it vividly as one of the worst calamities he has lived through. “I was working for a firm in Ghatkopar. On the day of the flood, it took me almost six hours to travel the route which normally requires not more than 90 minutes. During those long six hours, I witnessed the horror of my hometown drowning in a mess, with flood waters swallowing cars, bikes and landslides that caused buildings to fall. I finally reached home to be greeted by a dirty pool of water, no power and panic among residents,” he recalls.

Prajakta Gade, another Mumbaikar from Kurla recalls being stuck in her car for an entire day. “The government should have at least alerted people about the gravity of the situation. When I managed to reach home with great difficulty, the entire colony was flooded with muddy water, rising much above ground floors. There was no light or water. We felt totally isolated,” she recalls.

While the flood-affected northern areas of the city the most, it also completely cut off the city centre in the south from the mainland. Low-lying areas in Jari-Mari, Govandi, Sakinaka, Kurla were the worst affected. In some of these areas, the water was 10 to 15 feet deep. Open gutters and creeks had turned into raging rivers. Thousands of slum inhabitants had to watch their homes being washed away by flood or been severely damaged.

The breakdown of railways led to about 2.5 million people being trapped and nearly 2 million people were unable to leave the urban centre. The phone networks crumbled leaving families struggling to find out the whereabouts of their loved ones. The population was also exposed to waterborne diseases like hepatitis and gastrointestinal infections.

Lack of administration and governance

After realising the scale of damage caused by the flood, the public was outraged at the poor governance and lack of proper government administration. The then chief minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, admitted the disaster management plan did not work. He also set up a fact-finding committee.

When people could no longer pin their hopes on the government due to absence of administrative accountability and apathy, several NGOs came together to form ‘Core Citizens’ Commission (CCC)’ as a free, impartial, unbiased commission of enquiry to look into all matters about the floods. The CCC report 2005 states that:

The efforts made for relief and rehabilitation were inadequate. The government declared a two-day holiday for all state government officials including around 35,000 conservancy staff who should have been at the heart of rescue and relief efforts.

As a result, the common citizens had no one to turn to in their hour of need. CCC investigations revealed that around up to a fifth of the Government aid was unaccounted for; also, there were several areas where people not affected by the floods received aid.

Police officials also informed the CCC that there had been no representative from the MMRDA or the MSRDC at the joint meetings held to discuss Mumbai’s monsoon preparedness. They were also absent from the Disaster Management meetings.

The health experts and professionals told CCC that city’s dismal hygiene and waste management system aggravated the impact with a large scale of illness and diseases that broke out after 26/7.

What makes Mumbai so vulnerable

Mumbai or Bom Bahia (The Good Bay), as founded by the Portuguese originally constituted seven islands, later connected by the British to the Peninsula via reclaimed lands that lay just a few meters above sea level. Located in the tropical wet and dry climate zone, the coastal city’s drainage system was designed in the early 20th century for a maximum rainfall of 25 mm per hour.

This was based on the assumption that half the rain would be absorbed and only half would flow into the drainage system. However, over the years, the illegal construction and rampant urbanisation reduced the water-draining capacity of Mumbai drastically. The encroachment covered most nullhas and drains and choked them completely. Brihanmumbai Storm Water Drain Project (BRIMSTOWAD) reports that water and sewer pipes cause nearly 25% of obstruction and blockages in the drains.

Besides, the city witnesses 2500 mm of its 2700 mm of annual rainfall between June and September, putting a severe strain on the daily routine of people. The city is nearly unable to withstand this high density of rainwater which routinely exceeds the capacity of town’s drainage system, and causes a flood-like situation regularly.

Human Encroachment and Skewed urbanisation

Mumbai is the financial, commercial and entertainment capital of India. Mumbai’s business opportunities, as well as its potential to offer a higher standard of living, attract an influx of migrants every year from all over India. The city houses multinational companies, television industry, Bollywood and many financial and educational institutions.

As per 2011 census, the city’s population is 1.24 crore and nearly 52 lakh i.e. 42 percent of its population live in slums. This serves as a vote bank for politicians from different parties who attempt to lure slum-dwellers every year with new promises to protect their homes against regularisation and rehabilitation.

The high density slum population also leads to poor governance. For instance, lack of effective waste management system by Municipal Corporation has led to huge quantities of waste being disposed off into rivers and canals by the population. These waste materials further act as a causative factor of blockages of the drainage system.

Along with dense slum population, factors such as construction in high-risk areas are hurting the delicate framework of the city’s drainage system further. Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) norms do not allow any construction within 500m of the sea shore. But reality is far different. Reclamation projects at or below high tide level are posing a serious future risk to the megacity.

For instance, clearing of mangroves due to such projects has obstructed the path of the Mithi river flowing into the Mahim creek. The channelisation programme made the river follow an artificial route, thus preventing the natural mixing of river and sea. This loss of natural vegetation resulted in the slower discharge of water. Shailesh Nayak Committee formed in 2014, reviewed CRZ-2011 and recommended a host of dilutions and relaxations in its report. Alas, the recommendations are more in line with demands of the real estate industry seeking relaxations in coastal regulation legislation.

Furthermore, Mumbai airport is located in a flood prone area on the banks of Mithi River, and several creeks cross the airport area. The suburban railroad traffic, the city’s lifeline, which is used by two to three million commuters daily, is collapsing partially during heavy rainfall. There’s an urgent need to examine the city’s infrastructure design, especially transportation.

Planning for disaster management – where are we?

Post-2005 deluge, BMC developed Standard Operation Procedures for responding to Monsoon-related flooding. BMC as per its document identified public agencies and their responsibilities on dealing with a flood like situations. The document lays down the sequence of actions to be taken in emergency situations. But again action speaks louder than words. Brihanmumbai Stormwater Drainage (Brimstowad) project, which was planned to overhaul Mumbai’s water drainage system progressed at snail’s pace resulting in the costs to escalate.

A senior official from BMC partly blamed Department of Environment for this. He said, “Land acquisition and removal of slum encroachments have been major hurdles. We also have to rehabilitate project-affected people and get clearances from the Coastal Zone Management Authority and Coastal Regulatory Zone. We need a green signal from the environment department if there are mangroves or trees to be cut. Only then can we invite tenders for construction work.”

Debi Goenka, an activist and a core committee member of CCC says,“Nothing has changed since the tragedy of 2005. It is the same old story. In fact, the government is keen on regularisation of slums that will hurt vegetation and mangroves further.”

Yes, Mumbaikars are tough, but is that enough?

Despite the havoc that Mumbai faced in 2005, the spirit of the ordinary Mumbaikar was praised. Strangers risked their lives and belongings to help fellow citizens, people forgot their differences even in areas historically prone to communal violence, and wet and weary office goers trudging home, were revived with tea and biscuits offered free of cost by residents en route and much more.

Mumbaikars’ natural instinct to help others was a source of solace when the administration was nearly absent. But such inspiring stories must not eclipse the lack of action by the authorities. BMC must rectify the situation this year and implement a strict action-plan to save the city from another catastrophe.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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