September 07, 2008

Mumbai: Disastrous Management

September 2 was a year since I lost my father, JB D'Souza. My efforts to post some of his writings in this space have been fitful at best. Let me try once more. Here's something he wrote soon after July 26, 2005, when his city and mine was inundated.


Mumbai: Disastrous Management

Only one of Mumbai’s 15 million citizens shared Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s admiration of Maharashtra Chief Minister’s performance during and after the July 26 deluge. That was Vilasrao Deshmukh himself. Shock and disgust were universal. That every system in the city went awry was bad enough. That it took so long to clear the mess and restore normalcy was indefensible. The CM’s response, entirely predictable for Vilasrao, showed how unequal he and his government were to the task that faced them. After declaring two public holidays, he set up a committee of Secretaries to manage the crisis. He went on a few days later to announce a new Authority to protect the Mithi river that trickles into Mahim creek. When you lack the sense and the strength to tackle a crisis you at once appoint a committee or enlarge officialdom.

The Prime Minister’s flash comment, so uncharacteristic of Manmohan Singh, was one you could expect from someone like George Fernandes, who regularly rushes to crisis spots with instant comments. He either declares that they will be cleared in 48 hours (Kargil), or asks what is unusual about rape, looting and murder (Gujarat). Exactly what did the PM look at in Mumbai, what did Vilasrao let him see?

July 26 was different from anything Mumbai has ever suffered. The city is just as used to occasional failures of its services and communications, as it is to the high-tide-excuses its municipality invariably offers for those failures, but never was the paralysis so complete, so enduring. The Indian Meteorological Department was caught napping, unable to predict even a rainstorm so enormous. Were all its staff on holiday, or is it just incompetent?

Even this downpour would not have been so calamitous had the municipality and its Commissioner been regularly performing its mandatory duties, for which it taxes us so heavily, had its conservancy staff been efficiently monitored to ensure that the city’s gutters and its nalas and drainage channels always remained clear. The choking of roadside gutters, the progressive narrowing of innumerable large nalas, like the one at Oshivara and the Mithi river, ensure a quick and sustained flooding of streets and homes. Their continuance in this state for hours, even days, as happened last month, inevitably cripples the electric and telephone lines and submerges the rail tracks. It is chiefly the habitual neglect of the drainage system, and the failure to monitor its maintenance regularly to which Mumbai owes the disaster it suffered. And for which the municipality owes us all an explanation. Nor did the State government and its CM, obsessed with dance bars and dazzled by a mirage of Shanghai, acquit itself with credit or use its powers of control over the BMC and its Commissioner.

The CM’s plea to the press on July 27, that Mumbai’s drains were capable of carrying 25 mm. of rainwater an hour, not the 39 mm. load that came, might have served as an excuse if the system designed for 25 mm. had been kept clear; the flood would have abated, at least on the next day. That didn’t happen, as the CM might have noticed had he cared to descend from the comforts of Malabar Hill. In any case, 25 mm. is a nice round figure to flaunt for the city as a whole if you choose to forget that you have distorted and choked the system in particular sections by allowing disproportionately high Floor Space Indices (as high as 10 and 11) in already crowded localities with infrastructure already under strain.

The flood was followed by a spate of proposals for organizational change in the city administration. We heard experts and pseudo-experts pontificate over:

  • the separation of Mumbai into a separate State, a political impossibility;

  • the appointment of an all-powerful CEO for the city; where would you find one?

  • direct election of the Mayor (a la New York), as though the ability to win a direct election could ensure the emergence of a Rudolph Giulani;

  • revival of the earlier discarded Mayor-in-Council, whose first decision had been to spend Rs.4 crores of our money to set up plush offices for its members; that was perhaps its only achievement;

  • a split of the BMC into two units, one for the island city and one for the suburbs, a remedy far worse than the disease.

    As we have seen, Vilasrao’s own contribution to this muster of bad ideas was the creation of a Mithi River Authority. This was after he had set up that committee of Secretaries (under a chairman who was holidaying in Spain) to handle the crisis. A safe prediction about all these solutions is that they will generate more problems and more officialdom. Because they will be served by officials of the same poor quality and dedication as we suffer today – old wine, and not even good wine, in new bottles.

    Actually, the immediate aftermath of a disaster is perhaps the worst time to devise structural changes in the management of a city. If your home is burgled, you will equip it with more secure doors and locks; you won’t pull it down and build another one, one that might leak and let the rain in. Even Ministers and legislators of high quality – do we have any? – need to consult the citizenry, and specially persons skilled in urban management, before they meddle with existing structures. Instead, they tend to rush into the creation of new agencies of doubtful utility. Nothing illustrates this better than the story of the Mumbai Metropolitan Authority, set up in the early seventies to co-ordinate the various organizations administering the city and the region. Bureaucracy and opportunities for political patronage multiplied, but the Authority has little to show for the first quarter century of its existence, except its evolution into a real estate developer. As long as our urban management institutions are led by persons with little or no executive experience, no new institutional structure can produce in its units the official initiative and drive that crisis situations demand.

    How many readers of this article are aware of the existence of a Disaster Management Cell in Mumbai? I believe one was set up six or seven years ago, but if you judge from the handling of the recent disaster you have to conclude that it promptly went into hiding or slumber. Really, disaster management is not an activity that can suddenly wake up after a calamity overtakes us. It requires careful analysis of the various kinds of crises that can threaten a community. It requires continuous monitoring of maintenance, specially regular inspection of the drainage system (not only during the monsoon), of the state of the road and rail networks, of the management of traffic and its readiness to respond to hold-ups, of the telephone and electric networks, of the medical and public health arrangements, of the fire services -- and frequent mock-up drills. An alert disaster management cell would have, for instance, prevented the reduction of the width of the open lanes around certain buildings to 5 feet, which does not allow a fire engine access. It would also inspect the numerous meeting halls in the city for adequate provision of fire exits, now missing in many of them.

    In all of this the participation of the local communities is essential. In Mumbai there now are active Advanced Locality Management groups, most of them ready and eager to protect their localities. Their enthusiasm has to be supported and not resisted, as a number of Mumbai’s incompetent municipal councillors recently tried to do.

    I suggest, then, that all the institutional instruments are well in place, there is no need to devise structural changes that will only multiply officialdom and swell clerical armies, that new organizations will simply busy themselves with writing to one another, with no real addition to preparedness for crises. The present structures are adequate.

    This is not a recipe for complacency, or for confidence in the existing arrangements. No structures, new or old, will save the community from injury, dislocation, property destruction or disease without competent personal leadership among our political and administrative leaders, particularly the latter. Nothing will save us in a serious crisis if we continue with the kind of managers who led our respective organizations last month, if our government continues to place officials devoid of executive experience in strategically important positions in the city. I recall the promptness with which Chief Secretary Raghunathan took control of operations after the Latur earthquake, personally directing restoration and relief. Many years earlier Pune was devastated when the Panshet and Khadakvasla dams burst after unprecedented rains. The city was at once flooded, a large part of it -- streets and homes -- was buried in a huge layer of silt. The immediate response of the Collector and the Divisional Commissioner were disappointing. Chief Minister Yashwantrao Chavan at once appointed S.G.Barve, who had just quit the ICS, to redeem the situation. Barve worked day and night with his characteristic devotion and drive, an effort in which I was privileged to help him. In an incredibly short time the city was cleared of the heavy coat of silt, the loads of garbage were lifted, electricity was restored where it had failed, road and rail communications returned to normal, the water supply was reinstated, and the people who had been displaced from their homes on the river banks were rehoused in simple dwellings built for them in high level land we acquired.

    In Mumbai last month we looked for leadership of that quality; we looked for the State government’s Chief Secretary to take full charge of the situation, to get the Union Government to place the heads of its operational departments (the railways and telephone systems, for instance) temporarily under his control, to direct the various arms of the administration, assigning tasks to the senior officials, and to check compliance. We looked for such direction from a central control room. We looked in vain.

    Symbolic of what befell us was an apocryphal story my older brother used to tell me, of a fire that once occurred in the city. The Fire Brigade rushed one of its fire engines there, but found it could not pump water on to the flames. One of the firemen at once sat down to repair a large leak in the hose.
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