Milan subway: Why it’s a metaphor for Mumbai’s perpetual flooding problem

The subway floods almost every monsoon, the authorities pledge to fix the problem, the media scrambles to get arresting visuals – leaving the common folk to suffer, year after year.

WrittenBy:Tanishka Sodhi
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“This is hell. Where do we go when the rains come?” asked Reshma Abhimanyu Rawat, 28, one of the 50 people who live in shanties by the Milan subway in Mumbai.

Every year without fail, the subway, which connects the suburbs to the Western Express Highway, is flooded when the monsoon lands. And every year without fail, state and municipal leaders promise to fix the problem. Then the rainy season passes and everyone forgets about the subway, until the next year. Except, of course, people like Reshma who are left to suffer year after year – as if their lives were caught in a loop.

In that sense the Milan subway is a perfect metaphor for Mumbai: the city floods almost every monsoon and the people tasked with fixing the problem invariably make promises to kick it down the road. Until the next year and the next.

Not for want of resources, though. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, easily the country’s richest, has a Rs 150-crore budget to mitigate flooding in 386 “chronic flooding areas” in 2021-22. Yet, this season, like every other, much of the city went under water.

It’s not that BMC has not done any work – it augmented drains, installed pumps and assessed flood-prone areas this year – but, clearly, it is not nearly enough. For one, the city’s drainage system is over a century old and needs to be vastly improved to reduce losses from flooding, according to a 2010 paper. Superficial fixes won’t do. The Milan subway situation is proof. After the 2005 floods, which killed at least 500 people and caused estimated losses of Rs 200 crore, BMC identified the subway as one of the 60 localities most prone to flooding and started some work to improve the drainage system. The subway flooded again when the rains came next, and every year after.

Why did the fix not work?

One main reason is that the “rate of precipitation is more than the rate of collection or pumping out”, according to an engineer in the Storm Water Drains Department of BMC.

Another official in the department said “uneven rainfall distribution pattern” is mainly to blame. “This year’s trend is different from last year’s when the Milan subway was barely affected. The duration of monsoon is shorter but rainfall is greater,” he explained. “Flooding spots and the duration of water logging over a considerable period of time have substantially reduced.”

Sometimes, the official added, there’s much more rain than can be collected or pumped out. “The carrying capacity of the dewatering pumps is 50 mm an hour but Mumbai often gets rainfall four times that. When that happens, we have a problem accommodating the water,” he claimed.

The engineer argued that “there are limitations to taking preventive measures”. “This is a 24-hour city. Closing the subway even briefly will affect the public. Also prevention measures can go only so far. You have to see how far you are able to restore normalcy and how effective the measures have been.”

According to Nikhil Anand, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania who has written a book on Mumbai’s water and infrastructure policies, it is likely that the Milan subway, like much of the city, is built on a wetland. “This is why it becomes a wetland again every monsoon,” he said. While the reasons for the annual waterlogging are historical and ongoing, the blame for not finding a solution lies squarely with the city and state governments.

“Storm water drainage networks are not as well built in the suburbs, and pumping stations are frequently not able to remove water at high tides,” he explained. “With the intensified heavy rain days we have now come to expect with climate change, large-scale flooding, which we have long seen in Mumbai, is becoming a matter of public concern. There’s much the city can do here, to prevent the problem and to account for the loss of life and property every year.”

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In any case, the fast-flooding subway makes for arresting visuals for the media, and features in reports almost every year.

Vanika Harjina, 25, was a child when the 2005 floods engulfed the Milan slum, where she lives, and recalls climbing up on the nearby rail tracks to escape the deluge. “I remember it so clearly. A reporter was standing on the edge there,” she said, pointing to a boundary of the slum, “but he didn’t turn the camera towards us or ask us what was happening. We didn’t even have water to drink. We were small kids back then, but it hurt so much.”

Not much has changed since. The media, which is supposed to hold the concerned policymakers and public servants accountable, often abdicates its duty by focusing on the event – the flooding – rather than the underlying causes, which there are many. The media also usually ignores the plight of the people who bear the brunt of the rains, like Vanika and Reshma.

All homes in Reshma’s slum, commonly known as Bhaji Wadi, are makeshift, which means they are destroyed or severely damaged almost every year and the people are forced to pick up the pieces.

A month and a half ago, a portion of a compound wall next to the slum succumbed to the rains and fell, barely missing the shanties. Harish Chandra Singh, a rickshaw driver who lives in the slum, said BMC officials came and took pictures of the broken wall, never to return.

Reshma, who is raising two children aged four and seven, said it’s backbreaking to spend on rebuilding her family’s homes and lives every year from the monthly income of Rs 5,000 she earns from housekeeping. “We are forced to stay at home even when water gushes in and use pails to remove it. My children get sick. We are scared. We live in constant fear of the open gutters and flooding.”

People who live in a slum by the subway see their homes flooded every year.

The slum dwellers have long been asking to be settled someplace safer, to no avail. “They say we live in an illegal place. But we have voting cards and other papers. They don’t find anything illegal when we vote, only when they have to help,” said Vanika. “Even if it is an illegal place, why can’t they rehabilitate us? We are ready to move wherever. They just come to shoo us away, never to help.”

Prashant Sakpal, ward officer of K East, which encompasses the slum, said there is no rehabilitation or compensation plan in the works.

For Reshma, Vanika and their fellow slum dwellers, that portends pain and suffering for another year. At least.

Pictures by Tanishka Sodhi.

Also see
article imageWhy do so many Mumbai buildings collapse in the rains?

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