THE DAY MUMBAI WENT UNDER WATER

Flooding is not new to Mumbai. Every year when the monsoon hits the shores of Mumbai there are at least a couple of days when things come to a standstill. All roads in the low lying areas like Gandhi Market, King Circle, Hind Mata are flooded and tracks are flooded so the trains either have completely stopped or are moving at snail’s pace. We the people of Mumbai (or Mumbaikars as we like to call ourselves) have learnt to take it (among other things) in our stride. If it’s raining very heavily The children will get a day or two off from school as a rainy day. Office goers will leave the office early so that they reach home safely. Or if they have an option they will work from home. That’s it! It’s life as usual!

That’s the reason maybe we were so unprepared for the day when almost the whole of Mumbai went under water. Here I tell you the story of what I faced during the Mumbai floods. I have tried to keep the mood a little light but that doesn’t mean I want to trivialise the devastating effects of the floods. I am just trying to show the disbelief that we had in accepting that it can happen to Mumbai.

It was the July of 2005, 26th July to be precise. The day started as usual. I and my husband both left for office. My mother in law and my 2-year-old son were at home. I was 7 months pregnant at that time. My friends used to tease me that I looked like a baby elephant because of my bloated looks and my funny walk. But I was working and continued to work till the end of the 9th month. I actually enjoyed all the pampering I used to get from my colleagues. Coming back to July 26th.

It was raining heavily and incessantly since morning. Nothing alarming about it. There was a warning of High Tide also. Till lunch time it was work as usual after that we started hearing murmurs of flooding. We still thought that our areas never get flooded. It’s a problem for only the people who stay in low lying areas. But suddenly by 3 pm, it was announced that the office buses are leaving. We were glad for an early day off and went in the sat in the buses. It was only when the bus left the campus and reached the highway that we realised something was seriously wrong. The road was like a flowing river. At one point under the flyover, our bus was caught in swirling waters. Water on the road was so high that it was covering almost all of its tyres. The bus swayed as it moved through the water. After a lot of struggle on part of the engine and the driver, we finally came out of it and on to the next flyover. But the poor government bus engine had only this much life in it and it conked off. Still, no issues the highway ahead of us didn’t have much waterlogging. And we thought we had left the worse behind thinking that we will keep walking towards Navi Mumbai and we will take the lift from the vehicles coming and reach home.

All the vehicles coming from Mumbai were completely full people were hanging from the doors and sitting on the roof. With no chance of getting any lift we kept walking, a group of 10-12 people we walked around 10 km on the highway that day. Yes me too with my big belly! The distance which looked so short when travelling by car felt endless to us. No mobile network too. Once when I got network on my mobile there were more than 30 missed calls from my husband. He was so worried about me. I could relay to him that I was safe but still far from home.

When we left the highway and turned into Navi Mumbai I stared at the road ahead of us in complete disbelief. Our myth that this part of the city never got flooded was shattered. The road was completely submerged.  Only the top of the divider was visible. We all formed human chains and walked on the divider. One glimmer of hope came when we saw that buses were still leaving from Vashi depot. But one bus and there are hundreds of passengers scrambling to get on it. At this point of time, I can only praise the ladies accompanying me. They shouted on the top of their voice that there is a pregnant woman (me!) with us and made through the throng of people. They managed to get me a seat also on the bus.

As the bus moved through the bylanes of Vashi we saw to our horror half-submerged cars they seemed like floating on water. The bus was actually creating waves in the road and tearing through the water. On reaching my lane I was alone walking in the middle of the road as the water was least there. At the end of the lane was a stormwater drain. The water flow was so high that I felt that if I slip and fall I will be dragged into the drain. I called out to the watchman of our building to come out and help me cross the road. He held my hand and we waded through the water and I finally entered my building.  

It was midnight by the time I reached home. I was dead tired and my two year old had cried himself to sleep before I reached. But I must say I was much better off.

My husband waded through waist-deep water for 2-3 km. And reached home only the next day. Some places were so badly flooded that the whole houses were submerged. There was a colleague whose house was filled with water till the ceiling fan. The clothes, electronics, furniture etc were all rendered completely useless as the water was very dirty and filthy. Another friend of mine told us how they walked on the roof of parked cars to directly enter the upper floors of their house. People told stories of how water started bubbling up from the drains in the bathroom and flooding the house.

At least we lived to tell our tales. The official death toll of that day is 1094. Some people got sucked into the stormwater drains. Some died trapped in their car. This is a particularly sad story. When the water level started rising on the roads many people thought that they were safer in the car. But when the water rose further the central locking system got submerged into the water and stopped working, they got locked inside the car. And then the pressure of water was so high outside that they couldn’t open the doors manually too and were trapped inside and lost their life. This shows how unprepared we Mumbaikars were, how we took it lightly at first. They must have thought that they will wait it out in the car for waters to recede. Never thought that it was a life-threatening situation.

Of course, there are many other stories of how Mumbaikars helped each other. And how the famous resilient spirit of Mumbaikars helped the city limp back to normalcy.

But what we saw that night was unbelievable. The whole city was submerged in water. And the first reaction of everyone was disbelief. How can it happen to our Mumbai? But it did and you know why? First and foremost is the combination of incessant rains and high tide. And secondly, the British era drainage systems which are taking a load of a city growing uncontrollably and destruction of mangroves that used to work as a barrier to stop water from coming in. The sea reversed the flow of the very same drains that threw sewage into the sea and brought the water on to our roads and inside our houses. It was natures warning to us.

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