Already battling COVID-19 and the after-effects of cyclone ‘Nisarga’, the BMC now finds itself racing against time to meet another challenge – completion of pre-monsoon preparations. With monsoon expected to hit Mumbai in the second week of June, the civic body should have completed works such as repair of roads and cleaning muck and debris out of its nullahs and rivers by now.
These preparations are essential to ensure that the city does not flood during the heavy rains it receives every year. Desilting of stormwater drains is absolutely necessary to ensure low lying areas like Dadar, Parel, Sion, Santacruz don’t witness a deluge during the long drawn out monsoon. COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdown however, have derailed the civic body’s timeline.
Desilting Rivers, Major and Minor Nullahs
Mumbai has four major rivers that need to be cleaned and desilted, these include the Dahisar river, Poisar river, Oshiwara river and the Mithi river. Apart from this, there are around 280 kms of major nullahs or stormwater drains spread out across the city and about 438 kms of minor nullahs. BMC Joint Municipal Commissioner (Projects), P Velrasu said on an average, about 95 percent of the rivers and the major nullahs have been cleaned up.
“This year, because of lockdown and other things, our tender procedure got slightly delayed. We were delayed by about 10 days. But we started work and later we increased the frequency of desilting. Usually we work for one shift, we made it two shifts and the third shift made the transportation. Now, as of yesterday (Monday, 1 June), our desilting work is more than 95 percent on and average on all major nullahs and rivers.”P Velrasu, Joint Municipal Commissioner (Projects)
Pictures taken by activist Advocate Godfrey Pimenta on 4 and 5 June, however, show major nullahs in Marol and Kurla completely chock-a-block with garbage.
In his letter to the BMC and Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, Pimenta wrote, “We totally disagree with the 95% figure quoted by BMC. The ground reality is totally different. For instance, no cleaning and desilting of Nullahs in Sahar Airport, Marol, Kurla, Worli Koliwadas etc has been done by the Corporation.”
“In case of heavy monsoon, the above area will face unprecedented flooding and cause untold loss and damage to the lives and property,” he added.
Clean up of minor nullahs are a cause of concern for the BMC. These drains are narrow, less than 1.5 metres in width and hence cannot be cleaned by machines. Labourers are bought in to clean up such drains but with most migrant labourers having already left the city this year due to the lockdown, sourcing manpower has been a challenge.
“Since many labourers have moved out, we really had a situation. As of now, some wards have completed more than 80 percent (clean-up work). I would say, out of 24, more than 10 wards have gone up to 80 percent of the target. Remaining, about 7-8 wards are between 60-80 percent category. About 7 wards are in the poor range of 40-70 percent. For poor category wards, we have issued letters and notices to some engineers.”P Velrasu, Joint Municipal Commissioner (Projects)
With over 44,700 COVID-19 cases recorded in Mumbai city till date, most of the BMC engineers at all the 24 wards are also preoccupied with COVID-19 related work. With ward level engineers split between preparing for monsoon and tackling the spread of the virus, manpower of the civic body is spread thin this year.
“Most of this desilting work happens through contractors and contract labourers. Much of this labour is not here now. According to very rough estimates, about 10 lakh people have already left Mumbai and a lot of these are road contractors, road labourers. Nullah labourers don’t have permanent jobs here, they just get picked up by contractors,” says Observer Research Foundation (ORF) senior fellow, Sayli Mankikar.
The challenge before the city civic body would now be for them to meet the monsoon deadline, she adds.
“So, while we are getting assurance and I am seeing there is work happening, it might not be to the extent that it happens every year because of lack of staff. There is a fear that is brewing about whether we will really be able to wade through this monsoon with the existing work that has happened. Yes, it is a concern.”Sayli Mankikar, Senior Fellow, ORF
Transporting Materials to Repair Roads Delayed
Before the COVID-19 outbreak hit Mumbai, contractors in charge of repairing and maintaining roads ahead of the monsoon had already begun work and dug up roads across the city. But, with the pandemic becoming a pressing concern in the city since March 2020, the execution of the road repairs was halted for some time.
“We had a problem because we wanted to complete the work – because if the roads are dug up, you can’t just keep it like that and once monsoon comes, water fills up everywhere, and then there are issues, and accidents take place,” said Velrasu.
This was quickly followed by the lockdown during which, every activity apart from essential services came to a screeching halt. With movement within the state heavily restricted, sourcing materials for road work from quarries in Raigad district, Palghar district and other places became a challenge.
“Raigad district has major quarries, there are quarries in Palghar district, Thane district. All of them were shut down. So, our first challenge was to move those district administrations and as a special case open up those quarries for our work during lockdown. We spent a lot of energy doing that. We managed to get it open.”P Velrasu, Joint Municipal Commissioner (Projects)
From getting permissions to keeping non-essential services like concrete mixing and bitumen mixing plants to resume operations, to hiring workers to lay down the roads, have been a long drawn out process over the last few months for the BMC.
“We spoke to cement manufacturers to keep up the supply because cement is not an essential item. So, for that we had to make special arrangements to get cement coming in from Gujarat and other places, and we spoke to RCF to keep their plant running and to supply us with bitumen to make tar,” said Velrasu.
With hardly a week to go for the monsoons, the city can now only hope that the pending work is completed on time.