Seven years back in 2010, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) decided to impose a fine on people found dumping garbage. If anyone was caught throwing garbage in a drain they had to pay anything between Rs 100 and Rs 5,000 as a fine. BMC teams were formed in every ward under the ward officer who would go around the city keeping an eye out for offenders. The amount of fine will depend on how much garbage an individual dumps. Clean up marshals have been also alert, but later on they landed up blackmailing and extorting people. The cleanup drive and its marshals remained utter flop and the plastic bags still sunk the city but no one was caught. Some formalities were done to show the numbers. Throwing garbage in the open is not only an offence but it leads to choking of the drains. If drains are choked it will lead to flooding. There is still lack of civic sense among people.
Last month, when Mumbai was flooded, many nullahs (drains) that pass through thickly populated slums, were chocked. Nullahs around paan shops were seen with heavy garbage of pan masala’s waterproof sachets and Gutkha’s plastic wraps. Areas like Pila house and Nagpada nullahs were chocked with condoms. Even if the drains are cleaned, garbage from these areas was found floating in them the next day. Just plastic bags are not the issue, from chocolate covers to condoms all those waterproof wrappers pose challenge to Mumbai’s drainage system. Many slums which are situated on drains such as Chamdawadi nullah also passes through the Behrampada slum in Bandra (East), gets choked with garbage that people living in homes near the drain throw in it. You cannot stop them unless and until there is a strict vigil. Many slums exist near gutters that carry out small-scale works and dispose most of the waste in these drainage pipes. The BMC finds it difficult to clean these drains regularly because most of them are difficult to access because of shanties built around them. The politicians who rule the city and the state of Maharashtra blame it on the weather but they still fail to understand the geographical conditions and drainage issues pertaining to the city.
No one disputes that the island city on the Arabian Sea had more than its share of rainfall recently. On top of that, many ambitious projects like Metro etc. have made many ecological compromises. The systematic destruction of about 1,000 acres of the city’s mangrove cover – what’s left, about 5,000 acres, is under threat – has deprived Mumbai of its natural flood-barriers and silt traps. Now rainwater washes silt into the bay, threatening to clog the city’s deep natural harbour. Ecologically unsound decisions have caused huge financial damage. Meanwhile, horror stories abound of urban welfare projects gone terribly awry. Mangroves have been cleared to build golf courses, amusement parks and rubbish dumps. Building construction is planned on thousands acres of salt pan land. In the 16th century, 95 per cent of today’s Mumbai was under water. It’s not just the “no-development zones” that have fallen prey to the frenzy of unplanned construction.
Successive state governments have signed off land reserved for parks on the pretext of housing the poor. In fact, the replacement of low-lying slums with multi-storey buildings has made the city a concrete jungle.
Typically, 35-40% of rainwater is absorbed by the land, lifting groundwater levels, but there are few open spaces left in Mumbai. India has the lowest ratio of open space to people in the world – a mere four acres per 1,000 of population, compared to the global benchmark of 12 acres. In Mumbai, this falls to a paltry 0.2 acres, and after accounting for slums, it diminishes to a measly 0.03 acres.
An unholy nexus between politicians and builders and unfettered development has brought the city to the brink of collapse. Thousands of tonnes of uncleared rubbish choke the city’s 100-year-old storm water drains, which urgently need an overhaul. And in a city where 88% of commuters use public transport, governments spend a lot on flyovers and a pittance on upgrading creaky trains and buses.
If Mumbai’s extraordinary rainfall is a warning of global warming and rising sea levels, the city will become an island again, be it with rainwater or seawater.
In the next 50 years, the storm drains that carry rainwater out of Mumbai could be bringing sea water in, even at low tide. Storm water drains choked with ubiquitous plastic carry bags are partly responsible for Mumbai’s woes.
The Environment Ministry earlier imposed a ban on manufacture and use of small plastics carry bag but that has gone unheeded, not just in Maharashtra, but also in most parts of the country. In June 1998, the Bombay Municipal Corporation passed a resolution to ban plastics carry bags only to vacate it in less than two days. The then Mumbai Mayor said no plastic bags meant putting out of work those engaged in the plastics recycling industry. India’s plastics consumption is one of the highest in the world. Yet, precious little has been done to recycle, re-use and dispose of plastic waste. The carry bags that are callously littered at every public place have low economic value and are not picked up by rag pickers on a regular basis. About 500 flimsy polythene bags make a kilo and fetches about Rs 12, if the bags are soiled the value is even less. Without being picked up, most of the poly-bags end up in drains and block the flow of water.
In absence of a long-term Government policy, we are unable to get rid of poly-bags. “When sewerage is blocked, municipal corporations and state pollution control boards only pass the buck. Corporations just throw up their hands when it comes to handling the enormous quantity of plastic waste. Besides choking drains, plastics are highly toxic. When burned they release cancer-causing gases. Lying in the garbage, polythene bags also find their way in gut of cattle, asphyxiating the animals. Mumbai crisis serves as a grim reminder that unless our plastic waste is taken care of, we cannot dream to emulate Shanghai.
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