In Mumbai, A Mercurial Mithi And Those Who Await A Permanent Address
Residents in low-lying slums around the Mithi river live with one eye on its water level, ready to move out at a moment's notice when the river floods in the monsoon
Mumbai: It is a July night in Mumbai's central suburb of Kurla, and the rain is falling in sheets.
Vishakha Wagh (40) has finished dinner with her family, and has put her children to sleep--but sleep evades her. As she listens to the clamour of the raindrops on the asbestos sheet that is the roof of her house, she wonders if this will be the night.
Her apprehension is well-founded. A few hours later, she is woken up by yells of 'Paani aala, utha' (wake up, the water is coming). Her family runs outside, where people are already rushing towards higher ground. There is water in the narrow lanes and people use a rope fashioned by the local boys to make sure nobody is washed away. Wagh and her family are soaked to the skin by the time they reach a municipal school located on higher ground.
"We just find a spot to sit or lie down, and we stay there until the water recedes," says Wagh. "It could mean a few hours or a day, even two." What about food or blankets? "That comes much later, or not at all. All we get at that moment is shelter."
This account is not of one particular monsoon, but is representative of the many such nights and days she has experienced living in Kranti Nagar, a low-lying slum in Mumbai's Kurla area. Every one of the 2,000-odd houses here has water seeping in due to the adjoining Mithi river and, as the river swells, people have to run for shelter, sometimes more than once in a season.
At least 604 families living here are eligible for rehabilitation, according to locals. After the 2005 Mumbai deluge, the demand to demolish illegal slums that have mushroomed along the Mithi river grew, but only 35 families have been rehabilitated from this area so far, locals told IndiaSpend. The neighbouring Sandesh Nagar, Jari Mari and Bamandayapada areas also face heavy flooding, but Kranti Nagar--ensconced between the river and the airport's boundary wall--has only one escape route from the rising waters.
Local legislator Dilip Lande told IndiaSpend that at least 200 families will be rehabilitated by Dussehra (to be observed on October 5 this year), and that he is going to ensure the rehabilitation of another 1,500 families next year. Until that happens, thousands of residents continue to sleep restlessly next to a volatile Mithi, fearful that one night it might swallow them whole.
IndiaSpend reached out to the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) that is looking after rehabilitation of these people with questions about number of residents of Kranti Nagar eligible, delay in allotment of tenements to them and why the Authority has been unable to remove encroachments along the Mithi river. This story will be updated when they respond.
Vishakha Wagh, a resident of the most low-lying side of Kranti Nagar, showing the minimum level up to which her house has waterlogging in the monsoon.
River of woes
Few people in Mumbai can boast of a 'view' of the take-off and landing of flights from their homes the way people of Kranti Nagar and adjoining areas can--not even those living in tony Juhu. And yet, most residents of the slum have never even stepped inside the airport.
Except for the view, Kranti Nagar is a slum like any other in Mumbai. Brick and wood houses with asbestos sheet ceilings typically have an illegal mezzanine floor or two added on top that can be accessed by a rickety iron ladder. On any given day, one can find chickens and children running in gullies (lanes) barely wide enough to fit one adult. Women wash utensils and clothes out in the open, and the public toilets and taps are the focus of fights breaking out over water.
Most women here work as domestic help or as homemakers, and men do odd jobs or work as labourers. A few, like Sujit Sonavane, who lost their jobs due to the pandemic are still unemployed.
The municipal corporation considers around 3 metres or more as the 'danger level' of the Mithi river, and when water crosses that mark, people are temporarily relocated from these areas, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) officers said. On days of unusually heavy rain, the National Disaster Response Force team has to be called in with boats to evacuate people. In 2019, the BMC told the media that 400 people were evacuated from Kranti Nagar and 900 from Bamandayapada in Andheri East after the level of Mithi river increased.
Mumbai's Mithi river originates from the overflow of the Vihar lake at an altitude of 246 metres, and the overflow of Powai lake joins it subsequently. Its catchment area is 7,295 ha and total length 17.84 km. For context, each hectare is the size of 1.2-1.6 football fields. It traverses through Powai, Marol, Saki Naka and Andheri, runs below the runway of the international airport, meanders through the Bandra-Kurla complex and finally discharges its flow into the Arabian Sea through Mahim Creek.
Settlements along the river have existed for decades and have burgeoned due to political patronage, experts say. Swelling of the river in monsoons is not a new phenomenon for those living next to it, and residents of Kranti Nagar still remember the floods of 1984 and 1993.
"In the 1992-93 flood, I still remember spending the night on the roof of our house with my father. I must have been seven or eight at the time," says longtime resident Anil Kasbe. "That flood was also quite big, but there was no mass media back then. People now only remember the 2005 one."
Kranti Nagar is like any other slum in Mumbai where residents don't have the means to shift elsewhere and stay put in the hope of rehabilitation from the government. This is despite the slum getting flooded almost every monsoon.
Reclamation and encroachment over the years leading up to 2005 drastically reduced the width and carrying capacity of the river. After the deluge claimed hundreds of lives in that year, a fact-finding committee pointed to the reduction in the Mithi's width as a major reason behind the floods. The report also mentioned Kranti Nagar in the list of low-lying areas of Mumbai prone to severe flooding, and recommended immediate removal of slums along the shrunken river. Another report spelled out exactly which reclamation leads to flooding.
"The major problem of flooding is due to reclamation of land (620 ha) for the Bandra-Kurla Complex and due to the bottleneck forming at the confluence of the non-widened bridges at the downstream side of the Mithi River system. Therefore, widening of bridges… near the confluence is of utmost importance," noted a Supreme Court-appointed committee in its 2017 report.
Academics have studied the reasons behind the Mumbai deluge, and one paper quantified the condition of the Mithi at the time. "Almost 50% reduction in river width and 70% decrease in mudflats and open spaces have been observed. There is also a clear rise in builtup from 29% to 70% between 1966 and 2005, thus increasing the impervious surface which in turn increases run-off during major rainfall, eventually flooding the city," stated a paper published in 2006.
Despite all of this evidence, little was done to rehabilitate the settlements, demolish all the structures and convert land 50 metres on either side of the river into a no-development zone, as was recommended. The SC-appointed committee noted that removal of encroachment was "not totally satisfactory". Its 2017 report reads, "Encroachment by slums along the path and banks of the river obstructs the flow of the river and increases the environmental pollution in terms of sewage and solid wastes. During the floods, it is also a threat to the life of people residing in this encroached areas along the banks…There is urgent need to remove encroachment…"
The committee also heavily criticised the construction of a retaining wall along the Mithi and gave a host of recommendations to address the issues of flooding, pollution and encroachments but the matter has been pending before the SC since then.
Delayed rehabilitation, mounting losses for residents
Laxmi Waghmare has been waiting for her own home for decades now. She has been living in Kranti Nagar for 55 years, and is one of the 200 beneficiaries who are supposed to be rehabilitated first, locals say. Currently she lives in a single room towards the lower end of the slum. There are seven members in her family, including her 33-year-old daughter Vidya who is physically and mentally disabled.
"When it floods, our entire house goes under water," said Waghmare. "Like the rest of our neighbours, we cannot run to the school because Vidya cannot walk and has to be carried by two-three people. During a crisis, who will come to help us? In the past, we used to sit on the roof of our hutment in the rain. Now, we have added a floor above and wait there until the water recedes."
Even last year, she recalls, water had risen chest-high during the monsoon. Her family does not have the means to afford a rented house anywhere else, and ever since they were allotted a flat under the rehabilitation scheme, they have been living in the hope of having their own house one day. Waghmare has now been told that she will be given possession of her house in two to three months.
Laxmi Waghmare (second from left) with her family including her disabled daughter Vidya. The Waghmares used to sit atop the roof of their house when it got flooded in the monsoon.
Most residents including Waghmare suffer losses worth thousands of rupees every monsoon when their furniture, electronics, rations and even clothes and money get soaked.
Kamaltai Kamble, 70, has kept the washing machine in her house at a height. Her rations and clothes get spoiled in the flooding as there is a large amount of muck that flows in with the water. Kamble's name is in every survey done so far to decide who will get rehabilitated, and she lives in the hope of getting rehabilitated.
"How many things will you keep at a height?," Kamble asks, rhetorically. "How many things will you move? You just grab your children and run. Even after the water recedes, nobody comes to help us remove the muck."
Vishakha Wagh's family has already lost two refrigerators and one television set. "Even the clothes in the cupboard are spoiled along with rations, money. During floods, there is no electricity at times; at times you can smell leaking gas somewhere and you can only hope that the worst doesn't happen. In the days that follow, even clean drinking water is an issue."
Many residents have to borrow money from relatives and friends to repair what was lost in the floods. Some residents keep cash, valuable documents and jewellery in plastic packets. Others, like Chaitali Avsarmal and Wagh, have spent lakhs on increasing the height of their house.
"At least after the 2005 floods, authorities should have taken swift action. The buildings in Kurla's Kohinoor area meant for us have been ready for 10-15 years, and have fallen into disrepair already. Only 35 families were given flats, and even those are in poor condition. Every monsoon, there is a spurt in diseases here, children and senior citizens fall prey to them. We don't even know what to say anymore," said Avsarmal.
Kamal Kamble has kept the washing machine in her house at a height to protect it from floodwaters of the Mithi river.
Respite from the rain this year
All the residents expressed surprise and relief that their slum hasn't flooded yet this monsoon. "The way chowkidars shout 'jaagte raho', [stay awake, a call to keep away thieves] we shout 'paani aala, utha' [wake up, the water is coming] during monsoon nights, but surprisingly it was sunny this year on July 26 [date of the 2005 deluge] for the first time," said Sujit Sonavane, a resident of Kranti Nagar.
Mahadev Shinde, assistant municipal commissioner (I/C) of L ward, that includes Kranti Nagar, said that the municipal corporation has also undertaken widening of the openings at Kranti Nagar bridge this year, which could be one of the reasons for there being no flooding so far, but he also accepted that rain has given relief this year.
"We are on alert but water level has not increased this year so far," said Shinde.
'If Thames can be cleaned, so can the Mithi'
A.D. Sawant, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Rajasthan, president of the Society for Clean Environment, and a member of the SC-appointed committee mentioned above, said that if the Thames river, which flows through London, can be cleaned, so can the Mithi.
"There is no political will to clear encroachments along the Mithi because these people are somebody's voters. Just to win elections, you cannot harbour people in a locality causing loss of lives and property. Besides, some vested interests want these people to stay here so that hundreds of crores can be sanctioned every year to desilt the Mithi. By keeping people here, politicians are nurturing their vote bank."
Shiv Sena (Shinde-faction) legislator from Kurla, Lande has assured that work on rehabilitation of people is being done on priority.
"I have been seeing flooding in this area for decades," Lande said. "The rehabilitation project was stuck since 2009, a lot of governments came and went but people didn't get justice. After I became MLA in 2019, I had an argument with the Chief Secretary in a public meeting over handing over of these tenements. Finally, after Eknath Shinde became CM, the buildings have been handed over from the Slum Rehabilitation Authority to MMRDA, and urgent bids have been called for their repairs. We will hand over 200 flats by Dussehra and another tender is being drafted for the repair of 1,500 flats. People will get relief by next monsoon."
Residents expressed relief at Lande's promise, but asked why the 35 families moved out so far were not selected from the most low-lying part of the slum but picked at random. Also, allotment of the 225-sq-ft tenements will be done as per eligibility requirements (for example, possessing an electricity bill from before the cut-off date), and many may not make the cut.
Madhukar Saravde, 77, has seen one too many floods. Sitting in the Buddha Vihar (prayer hall) at the entrance of the slum, Saravde talks of the floods as something as routine as the rain itself. He expressed satisfaction that the authorities have undertaken widening at the Kranti Nagar bridge which might provide relief to the slum in heavy rain, but has no hopes beyond that.
"Ya zopadpattila aai nahi an baap nahi, lavaris ahe (This slum has neither a mother nor a father. It is an orphan)," he says, as he joins palms in prayer before the idol of Lord Gautam Buddha, puts on his slippers, and leaves.
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