Mumbai monsoons: Are citizens passing up a chance to solve the flooding issue?


Pic credit: Wikipedia

It no longer comes as a surprise to anyone — the annual monsoon headlines describing how India’s megapolis Mumbai is gasping to keep its head above floods caused by heavy rain, while citizens rue that there is little they can do to dam it.

Still, sometimes, there are fledgling ideas that do lead to action, even if at a hyperlocal level. Radha, a citizen activist from Lokhandwala Residents’ Association at an apartment in a shopping-cum-residential area got into the act immediately. She says that when her locality was getting flooded, the main cause of the excessive water was found to be faulty engineering. Garbage was choking a chamber, so the rainwater had no outlet. Immediately (earlier this year), she contacted the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to get the problem fixed.

“We got them to remove the garbage that was choking the first chamber and also asked them to manufacture a second chamber for us,” said Radha.

So now, do they get to live happily ever after? Not really, she says. Civic problems are never-ending: Potholes all over their roads, choked drains and bad chambers. However, her efforts did succeed in resolving some part of the problem.

Why are residents then averse to proactively engage in the problems that affect them so much? Radha’s take on this is interesting and illuminating. “Each citizen is interested only in checking out how safe his or her own house is. Beyond that, there is nothing they do, really. The basic problem is that Mumbaikars nowadays no longer have a 9 to 5 job. They leave for work at 7 and return at 10. So how or why would they want to get involved in community matters during weekends?”

What citizens can do

Is there really something that citizens can do? Actually, there is — at least in letter, and sometimes in spirit. Radha is a member of the Advanced Locality Management (ALM) in the area — a community organisation born out of a very interesting concept introduced in 1997 by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM). The original intent behind creating these areas/neighbourhoods with Advanced Locality Management was to identify localities, and get residents to commit themselves to improving the quality of life in those, in close co-operation with the MCGM.

However, the idea to rope in citizens for community participation and governance did not sustain. “ALMs have been quite a failure, on and off. Citizens just do not step forward to assume the mantle of ownership,” said Rahul Kulkarni who deals with civic issues at Praja, a Mumbai NGO.

Kulkarni explains that the ALMs in Mumbai have three stakeholders – citizens, administrators and elected representatives. They are supposed to work together in order to achieve some set guidelines. If they adhere to rules such as monthly meetings, they get some benefits in terms of awards, taxes etc apart from solution of civic issues on priority. But if they don’t, which is most often the case, then it really doesn’t serve much purpose.

ALM rules and guidelines

The first ALM was set up in 2007 at Bandra. After the BMC listing in the late 1990s, 719 ALMs were formed, but a number of them got deregistered over the years for being “inactive and inefficient,” even though the rules are simple.

Once the ALM is registered, the members have to attend monthly meetings, create awareness about garbage segregation, prevent littering and spitting, dispose of dry waste once or twice a week, take up other civic problems  and finally present issues to the Zonal Deputy Municipal Commissioner and Additional Municipal Commissioner, through the Officer on Special Duty (OSD) and ALM Ward Co-coordinator.

While the primary objective of ALMs was to drive garbage segregation and efficient waste management, some of them soon began to focus on other issues pertinent to the locality, such as laying of roads, tree cover, street lights, CCTV cameras, hawking activities,  safety and security, fighting noise pollution, littering etc. The ALMs also aim to build good rapport between the citizens and officials.

However, today, just about 145 ALMs are functioning – and not all of them very “satisfactorily” either, according to BMC officials. Unsolved disputes and loss of interest among citizens have led to de-registration of several among them.

What the government can do

Subhash Patil, who is the Officer of Special Duty (OSD) and ALM chief, overlooks a staff of – none! He is the one-man army in charge of the ALM efforts for the entire city. However, there are other Assistant Engineers and ward officers who are are not exclusively in charge of ALM duty, but also help the chief to provide technical know-how and skills to citizens.

Patil was quite appreciative of some citizens in the ALM associations at Bandra, Chembur, Dadar, Kandivili, Andheri and Lokhandwala. If people do get involved in a big way, they can make or break things, he said. However, it is difficult to find interested people across the city!

Do they have their monthly meetings regularly? Patil chortled. “No. They just meet every three to four months…”

What about politicians, MLAs or MPs from the area? Politicians are supposed to be part of ALMs too, isn’t it? “Maybe. But the municipality does not like politicians interfering with their work,” explained another officer who did not wish to be named.

The ALM in Mumbai, then, is all about a good idea that doesn’t have a dedicated staff or team to translate it into action. It is like the eternal chicken-and-egg story – should citizens push the government or should the government drive the citizens to do their bit?

Would citizen initiatives like ALM solve flooding problems?

Garbage, the original reason that fuelled the setting up of the ALM, is the focal issue for functional ALMs in Mumbai. A lot of these committees are wired up to separate garbage and ensure rejection of plastic. A few are into natural composting, gardening and tree-plantations. So, how can they help solve drainage issues in the neighbourhood?

A big part of our urban flooding woes — in Mumbai as in other cities — stems from the clogged drainage systems and dumped-upon water bodies due to inefficient solid waste management. That, coupled with the fact that ALMs give citizens an explicit opportunity to take any unresolved civic issues to the concerned Zonal Deputy Municipal Commissioner and Additional Municipal Commissioner, through their OSD & ALM Officer or Ward Co-coordinator, implies that one cannot completely write off the role of the ALM in preventing and addressing flooding issues.

However, it is also equally relevant that in order to elicit an effective response from the government, it becomes important to chase them. As an example, Radha says, “We managed to get waste composters for two buildings from the BMC after considerable effort. However, after that, some people asked us why we couldn’t get them for the smaller buildings nearby, but my reply to that is – I cannot get them all to do everything. They should take action on their own.”

Hema Ramani, from the Bombay Environmental Action Group points out that while waste segregation is an issue in the city, and even related in some ways to the broader problem of flooding, there is really very little that citizens can do on their own. “There is too much concretisation in the city, and a plan to plant some 3,000 trees in a locality does not really help much. There have to be plans to construct round tunnels and have open spaces; solid waste management is a major issue here.”

Rahul Kulkarni says that there are two ways of looking at solutions. Firstly, collect data from the ground and present them to the government for action, as his organisation Praja does.

Secondly, take it as a structural, long-term challenge. By lobbying with elected representatives and bureaucrats, citizens can work out issues at tandem. By approaching the elected Councillors to alert them about the better quality of work here, it is possible to get things done, he said. However, the crucial question is – are the citizens interested?

The real crunch  

The other important question here is why the Municipality has been unable to sort out the drainage mess in the city. Is it lack of funds and resources?

“Not in the least,” says Rahul, firmly. Mumbai’s last budget showed that it had Rs 27,000 crore for the city. It doesn’t make it seem under-resourced at all. While the municipality has the maximum number of tasks to take up, it also has a large amount of money to spend. Hence, the problem for the BMC is not non-availability of funds, but non-channelisation of funds. The Commissioner, who is responsible for announcing the budget and allocation of resources, is not accountable to anyone.

The ALM’s role, then, becomes even more crucial. Just as Praja is striving to hold the authorities accountable at a city level, why can’t citizen groups like the ALMs too drive the local government to take the steps necessary to address the real causes behind the locality’s monsoon misery?

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About Revathi Siva Kumar 49 Articles
Revathi Siva Kumar is a freelance writer based out of Bangalore.