Fixing Mumbai

Remember the 2005 floods? Can we prevent it happening again?

On July 26, 2005, a cloudburst brought the Mumbai metropolitan region to its knees. 944 millimetres of rain in a 24-hour period flooded many parts of the city, and less, but still heavy rain in the days after, preventing a quick recovery, took a huge toll.

There was no formal survey of losses, but by a conservative estimate, the disaster took at least 450 lives during the flood and another 248 later; another 300,000 citizens required some kind of medical attention. Also damaged: 20,000 cars, 2500 BEST buses, and two- and three-wheelers beyond count. Around 200,000 tonnes of garbage — washed away or water-soaked furniture, foodstuffs, appliances — had to be cleared up. And to prevent an epidemic of monsoon-related diseases, 24 metric tonnes of bleaching powder and two metric tonnes of disinfectant were used.

The cloudburst was a freak occurrence, its severity worse than the worst that the city had experienced since formal records were kept. But it demonstrated what unbridled development had done to the city. And it showed that our civic administration was woefully unprepared to face a disaster.

After the floods, a fact-finding committee of experts under the chairmanship of Dr. Madhavrao Chitale was set up to assess the disaster preparedness and management of Mumbai. A comprehensive report was published in 2006 to serve as a handbook for the municipal corporation. It largely influenced the framing of the 2009 national guidelines for urban flood management.

Mumbai’s monsoon problems — potholes, overflowing drains, flooding — are manifestations of a larger fundamental planning issue. For nearly five decades since 1967, Mumbai has practised planning for regulating development. Today we are in the third instalment of this plan. Its essential function is to adapt to the city’s present condition with enough foresight to guide development, safety and improvement for the next 20-year period.

Ironically, instead of looking forward, the Development Plan (DP) 2014-2034, now in its second revision (the revised draft DP, or RDDP) bases itself entirely, and rather proudly, on the DP of 1991 of which less than 20 per cent has been achieved till date!

Let us examine the annual challenge the monsoon throws up.


Over 90 per cent of the population uses the pedestrian network and public transport.

During peak hours, the suburban local trains transport 22 lakh passengers. And every year, come the rains and locomotives succumb to waterlogging and electrical failures, pushing commuters onto the roads. Which are packed with private vehicles, and more private vehicles parked — and double-parked — on both sides of the road.

In this scenario, what we’re seeing is plans for… more roads for private vehicles! After the Sea Link and the Eastern Freeway, now there are plans for more big-ticket infrastructure projects, like the Coastal Road.

• What the DP needs to do is pay more heed to upgrading existing pedestrian networks and public transport for the next 20 years.

• We also badly need to strengthen norms and pricing policies for parking.

Open spaces

Actual open spaces allocated per person in the RDDP to be achieved till 2034, which includes recreation grounds and parks, is 2.8 sq.m. per person. This is a little more than one-fourth the standard of 10 sq.m. set by the Ministry of Urban Development’s national Urban and Regional Development Planning Formulation and Implementation Guidelines.

The RDDP also proposes to open up No-Development Zones (NDZs) for construction, and to build roads on mangroves and other natural areas. This despite a recent Bombay High Court reprimand to the State government for requesting it to modify an existing order that bans construction on wetlands.

Similarly, ideas like promoting construction of recreation grounds on open-to-sky podiums of buildings and including these as open spaces, or permitting underground parking lots below gardens and playgrounds, seem attractive at first look: such plans superficially add large swathes of green to the city. But they run contrary to a standing 2013 Supreme Court judgement on urban form. We must consider that these ‘green’ patches sit on impermeable concrete surfaces.

• Natural green spaces are not just good for the soul; they play a very important roles in the absorption of rain water. They raising groundwater percolation, and also act like holding ponds which help increase the rainfall’s ‘time of retention’ on city surfaces. besides reducing the pressure on storm-water drains.

• The BMC must pay heed to the Bombay HC’s scathing criticism of the zeal to destroy mangroves “under the garb of development.” Not just the mangroves, which cushion the land against the waves and prevent soil erosion; the BMC must also protect the National Park, the Aarey colony, and the salt pan lands; they play a huge part in protecting the city from the ravages of the monsoon, absorbing rainfall, replenishing groundwater and lakes.

• These natural buffers these are not public open spaces which you and I can use. What the DP needs to do is protect existing green spaces and create more of them, ensuring that they are accessible and distributed.


Mumbai’s drainage system capacity can deal with about 25 mm of rain per hour. In the suburbs of Greater Mumbai (including its existing NDZs and natural areas), drainage capacity is expected to double to 50 mm in the coming decade through implementation of Brimstowad (an awkward acronym for Brihanmumbai Storm WaterDisposal system) projects.

However, every year we record several days of heavy rainfall exceeding 65 mm per hour, which means several days of floods. Even the enhanced drainage capacity in the suburbs won’t be able to deal with this.

When we cover our green, open spaces with construction for development, or permit ‘innovative’ green spaces built on concrete surfaces, then the rain falls on impervious surfaces and instead of being absorbed into the earth, replenishing ground water, gushes down drains and nullahs. Our already overloaded storm-water drainage will get overwhelmed, and naturally, there will be more waterlogging and flooding.

Add to that the silt in our drains. The BMC and its contractors do conduct desilting operations. But the removed debris is often found lying in heaps next to nullahs, right up to the time the rains come in and wash the muck back into the drains.

• Better inter-agency coordination is needed to ensure that the silt is not just removed from the drains but also disposed of.

• Mumbai also needs more pumping stations, to push the water out to sea. But if the BMC’s current rate of project implementation is anything to go by, it would take two decades to install six more pumping stations for Mumbai at an escalating cost of over Rs. 3000 crore.

• The Storm Water Drain department’s topographic contours map, created using aerial photography and photogrammetric mapping, must be studied while planning. Allowing development without considering natural water flows and drains collapses the city’s defences against the monsoon’s onslaught.

• An overhaul of storm-water drains, sewerage operations, and solid waste management systems seems inevitable. We will need to dig up our roads, overhaul the drainage systems, and resurface roads again. This will cost us lots of tax rupees and, by disrupting public transportation significantly for years together, add on hidden costs in the time and energy we spend stuck in traffic. The DP should plan carefully to mitigate this.

Natural drains

It is important that we also take a look at the streams, or nullahs, the storm drains that nature has given us. Nullahs are inherently seasonal; they dry up after the monsoon. Like other parts of Konkan, Mumbai has natural creeks and nullahs. Or rather, had nullahs. They are now perpetually stinking gutters carrying dark viscous liquid into the Arabian Sea. Aside slums with open gutters carrying waste into nullahs, there are also industries that pipe their untreated effluents directly into them. And there are places where sewer lines empty into these natural storm-water drains too. Deposits from all these add silt to the nullahs; and shallower nullahs mean less capacity to absorb and drain storm water flows. We saw how the Mithi’s flooding contributed hugely to the crisis of 2005.

• To restore their natural function, our city must do several things. Slum residents need their basic civic amenities; their waste must be treated and disposed of hygienically.

• Industries polluting these streams must be dealt with strictly and permanently.

• We, the citizens of Mumbai, can help too. We must stop dumping our garbage into storm drains.

Disaster Preparedness

Disaster management without a plan is like Swachch Mumbai without dustbins, a Walkable Mumbai without footpaths, a Digital Mumbai without internet connectivity for all. The annual token exercise of pre-monsoon preparation by four key BMC departments — road maintenance, sewerage, solid waste management and storm-water drains — can hardly prevent a disaster-in-waiting. The BMC has a state-sized budget, and crores are spent annually on operations, maintenance, and repairs. But we remain a step away from another 2005.

Recently, in Uttarakhand in 2013 and 2016, and in Chennai in 2015, unregulated construction on natural drains and riverbeds precipitated devastating floods. But the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation seems to be unwilling learn from these mistakes.

• The DP must incorporate the Chitale Committee recommendations on preparedness, mitigation, rescue and relief. But those recommendations barely find mention in the RDDP.

• In doing so, the RDDP should also adhere to the national standards for social and welfare amenities per citizen, for health, education and open spaces.

Celebrated architect and visionary Charles Correa in conversation on Mumbai would often bring up a parable of a frog in water. If you drop a frog in hot water it will immediately jump out. But if you drop the amphibian in tepid water and slowly raise the temperature, it will swim around happily adjusting to the heat, till it cooks to its death. With an RDDP like this, we have to ask how much longer before Mumbai finally leaps out of the boiling water to safety?

About the author

Pankaj Joshi is Executive Director, Urban Design Research Institute and founder trustee, Society for Environment and Architecture, Mumbai. He studied architecture at the Academy of Architecture in Mumbai and then obtained a Master of Arts in Building Conservation from the Institute of Advanced Architecture Studies at the University of York, UK. In private practice since 1999, his work encompasses planning, urban design and conservation, architecture, and interiors. He has served on the state government’s Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee and the Board of Governors of the Heritage Conservation Society of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority. He is also a visiting professor at schools of architecture and planning in India and abroad.

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2021 8:05:08 PM |

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