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Rains douse Bombay’s dream to become Shanghai

August 2, 2005

By Rina Chandran

BOMBAY (Reuters) – India’s dream of turning its financial
hub, Bombay, into another Shanghai was washed away by the
city’s worst rains on record that left dead bodies and animal
carcasses floating on the flooded streets.

Home to more than 15 million people and also to Asia’s
largest slum, the teeming metropolis came to a near standstill
last week after the deluge caused floods and landslides that
killed nearly 500 people.

As the city struggled to deal with its submerged streets,
power and phone outages, floating garbage, lack of clean
drinking water and transport disruptions, residents of India’s
Bollywood film capital asked: Was this disaster natural or
man-made?

Environmentalists blamed the city’s unplanned urban growth,
while citizens’ groups said the state didn’t react quickly
enough to warn people of one of the worst disasters in the long
history of Bombay, a group of seven islands stitched together
by reclaimed land.

“This was a disaster waiting to happen,” said Shyam
Chainani, secretary of the Bombay Environmental Action Group.
“The city has been expanding willy-nilly, with no concept of
development. We should be surprised it didn’t happen before.”

“And when everything was collapsing, there was no
information being given, which caused needless suffering.”

The plan to turn Bombay into another Shanghai was first
enunciated by a former chief minister of Maharashtra, of which
Bombay is the capital, and then repeated by Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh.

Consulting firm McKinsey & Co. which did a report in 2003
on how Bombay could be turned into a first-world city, said the
transformation would require radical changes to transport,
housing and sanitation, besides a reduction in slum population.

But last week thousands of people walked for hours to get
home, some in chest-high water, after train tracks were
flooded. Others spent the night in train stations or on stalled
buses.

Then on Thursday, as rumors of a dam collapse swept through
a suburb, a stampede killed 18 people, many of them children.

Bittu Sahgal, a leading environmentalist, said the flooding
was inevitable after the government reclaimed land and
destroyed mangroves to make way for roads and buildings.

“The bottom line is urban planning decisions are driven by
builders and developers for profits, not by city planners. The
civic authorities are responsible for these deaths,” he said.

ILLEGAL SLUMS

Reclaimed land along the coastline led to water-logging,
and the destruction of mangroves and wetlands caused more
damage, as they would have otherwise provided natural barriers
against flooding and dissipated the strength of the waves, he
said.

Much of Bombay is dotted with illegal slums and real estate
projects, most of which provide no drainage.

Rubble from construction projects dumped in wetlands has
clogged drains, forcing water to the streets and drowning cars
and buses.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh blamed the
rain. “It was unprecedented.” he told Reuters. “What could any
government do?

“People panicked on Tuesday … they did not follow
instructions, and the police were helpless.

“We will look into the urban development issue, but this is
not the time to do it. Our priority now is rescue, relief and
rehabilitation,” said Deshmukh. It is estimated that losses
from the flooding in Maharashtra could reach half-a-billion
dollars.

Over the weekend, angry citizens stoned buses and dumped
piles of rotting garbage in the offices of civic authorities
and politicians to protest against the breakdown of services.

In one suburb, citizens hung posters promising a reward for
information on the whereabouts of their elected representative.

“The irony is that the Infrastructure Leasing and Finance
Co. and the Bombay Metropolitan Development Agency are both on
reclaimed land — the very bodies that are planning
development,” said environmentalist Darryl D’Monte.

“We are living in a fool’s paradise.”

(Additional reporting by Sugita Katyal in NEW DELHI)




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