The woman in a black burkha recalled how on July 26 last year, when Mumbai received an unprecedented 944 mm of rain in 24 hours, her baby was a day old. She had been to the municipal hospital in the suburb of Kurla for a check-up. By the time she returned in the afternoon, the road leading to her shanty colony resembled a swift-flowing river.
As she put it, "I didn't know what to do. Just then, four Hindu boys, complete strangers, came up to me and offered to help. I hesitated, but then realized that there was no other option. The boys first carried my baby to safety the other side. They then held me as I waded across the water." She was testifying before the Concerned Citizens' Commission, which was enquiring into the causes and consequences of the floods. (This writer served on the panel, the draft report of which was released recently www.cccmumbaiflood.org). The commission was headed by former Supreme Court judge P B Sawant, who played a major role in drafting the country's Right to Information Act. It included activists like Teesta Setalvad and Pushpa Bhave.
The process of conducting the hearings was as instructive as the findings. We held sessions in far-flung suburbs like Jari-Mari, which I had only heard of before but never visited. Many of these areas were near the Mithi river, which retaliated that fateful day against the abuse to which it has been subjected for decades, by overflowing with a vengeance, inflicting death and destruction in its path. The Mithi, and other expanses of water, became objects of trauma for the poor for days, a kind of phobia. Slum dwellers complained about losing their homes and belongings, and it rankled greatly that all their clothes were sodden for days on end.
Mohammed Yasin from Jari-Mari, recalled that the water near his hutment was 14 feet high. "No one had any idea of what was happening; it had never occurred before. It didn't look like stopping. It was difficult to save lives." Jari-Mari is near the airport, adjoining the Mithi river. He blamed the Airports Authority of India for attempting to widen the taxiway by diverting the river. The wall around the runways caved in, completely flooding the airport, which led to the cancellation of 1,100 flights.
Granted that a downpour of this magnitude would have marooned any city in the world - academics from New York who were stranded during 26/7 cited how their city would have ground to a halt - but the wrath of nature was compounded by the crass ineptitude of the administration. The Municipal Commissioner, Johny Joseph had served as the Relief Commissioner after the earthquake in Latur in 1993 and was then the architect for a World Bank-funded disaster management plan for the entire state. However, there was nothing to show that such a plan even existed, let alone implemented in any part.
For his part, Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh declared a two-holiday for the entire administration - precisely at a time when they were most needed. Asked on a TV discussion how he justified such an unprecedented measure, he replied that it was not as if government officials had not been affected in their own homes as well. This prompted a lady in the audience to remark that if war was declared, jawans could well refuse to fight at the front on the pretext that their first duty was to protect their own families!
It is true that all roads and trains were blocked, which made delivering relief supplies difficult. However, the very least the administration could have done was to provide information, which was sorely lacking. The simple expedient of telling people to stay on at offices or schools on the afternoon of 26/7 would have saved lives and endless hardship. While TV channels were not functioning in the suburbs, the government could have used FM radio stations to convey this vital piece of information. For that matter, ham radio operators, who had helped in Latur, could have been pressed into service to identify the affected areas. Indeed, it is ironical that in Khar, another suburb, a blogger who a few weeks later helped to connect victims of Hurricane Katrina with those in the US who wanted to provide relief was not contacted.
At the same time, the deluge revealed the innate tendency of the city's poor to come to each other's aid - despite the government. In many shanty colonies, the madrassas (religious schools) were the only pukka community structure accessible and everybody was given shelter there for a couple of nights and even provided food. Normally, the RSS would have been the first on the scene in any such disaster but for some reason, was absent on this occasion. The Shiv Sena, racked by internal rumblings, was nowhere to be seen either, enabling people to obey their natural instinct to come to each other's aid, irrespective of caste or religion.
Considering that many slum dwellers lost literally everything except the clothes on their back, including their ramshackle homes, they had remarkably not given up hope, even when the commission held hearings a few weeks later. During some hearings, it continued to pour heavily, reminding those affected of the trauma they had been through. Even so, they continued to put their lives together as best they could. It was in sharp contrast to the situation in New Orleans after Katrina. The victims there, mainly poor blacks, were bereft of any hope and did not seem to possess the will to do anything to help themselves.
To me, the humbling experience of serving on this commission was a reminder that despite the abject poverty that 55 per cent of Mumbaikars find themselves in - and this is probably deepening - they have not lost the will to better their lives, however and wherever they can cope with life's tribulations. There is a social fabric which remains intact, despite the government's indifference, if not outright hostility, and that is a resounding tribute to the resilience of these most dispossessed, who probably form the largest number of homeless in any city in the world.