By now I'm sure most of you know what I'm talking about. Going to take a break from the funny posts today.
On 26 July 2005 the city of Bombay recorded a mind-boggling 944 mm (37 inches) of rainfall, which is a new world record that surpasses the one set by Cherrapunji in 1910 when it received 833 mm (33 inches) in the same day. To put things in perspective, Bombay's historical average for the whole month of July is about 600 mm (24 inches), which is 20 times London's average but less than two-thirds of what Bombay received in a single day on 26 July!
What chaos it has been since then! On Tuesday afternoon, it poured like I have never seen it pour before (even in July) and the skies darkened like I never imagined possible during an afternoon in India. By 4:00 pm people had started to make their way home, and some had chosen to stay back in office.
Here is my eyewitness account of what happened next, and it is representative of what other Bombayites went through.
For once I wish I had listened to my mother, when she said I should stay put at office. But knowing my boss's propensity toward thinking of more work on unexpectedly finding people in office, I thought to myself, "How bad it could it possibly be!" and set out in my car along with a colleague at about 5:30 pm, expecting to reach home (22 km away) in three hours as opposed to the usual 75 minutes in evening traffic. Needless to say, all commuter trains had been cancelled due to flooded tracks. I thought my usual route through the docks would be better than going via Byculla, Dadar and Kings' Circle.
By 6:30 pm we had barely managed to clear Ballard Estate (3 km from where I started). The traffic was already gridlocked and progress was limited to a few yards every now and then, aided not by the traffic police but by good samaritans including the ones who bashed up the truck driver who refused to back up (and clear the junction he had blocked) when I asked him politely. Meanwhile both mobile and landline networks were jammed.
By 7:30 pm we had just about made it past Dockyard Road, and the progress was extremely painful. Local boys were busy clearing fallen trees and directing traffic. Thousands of people were trying to make their way home crammed into taxis, pickup trucks, lorries and buses; or simply on foot. I had picked up a Malayali businessman and his assistant, who had requested to be dropped near Everard Nagar. The only thought in my mind was to somehow get on to the flyover at Reay Road and then onto the Bombay Port Trust road towards Wadala, as it is wide, rarely crowded and well drained. I had never seen it flooded before Tuesday night.
By about 9:00 pm we had managed to get to the Port Trust road and to my horror it was gridlocked. Here I saw the first policemen I had set my eyes on since I left office and they were busy diverting traffic deeper into the docks. I had never been to these parts, and kept following the other cars. By now we were driving through upto a foot of water. Some of those roads were not part of the dock system and simply did not exist - they were meant only for the use of the fisherfolk who lived there and the odd factory based there, and hence were in a sorry state of repair. The water was now up to two feet deep in some places and it was a test of all the driving skill I could muster to avoid the potholes (or rather, craters) that I couldn't see! Already there were taxis stranded by the side of the road, because they are all aging Premier Padminis, not the best of vehicles for driving through water! At this moment, I noticed a great deal of smoke billowing out from under the bonnet of my car. I forget what logic he gave me, but the Malayali gentleman told me to put the A.C. back on, and to my surprise the smoke disappeared!
By 10:15 pm we rejoined the Port Trust road, near Sewri station. I dropped my colleague off, as he was headed to his brothers' house closeby. The cops were directing traffic past the railway crossing, back towards Dadar.
But when I told them I wanted to go to Chembur, I was 'allowed' to drive on straight. And by that I mean straight into a stream of other vehicles battling three to four feet of water. At this point it sunk in (please pardon the pun) that this was a water disaster of proportions I could not have imagined, despite having lived in Bombay all my life. I kept driving and praying, but the water just got deeper till it touched the sideview mirror, and even entered my car till the seats were wet. I kept accelerating so that I didn't get water into the tailpipe.
But someone suddenly leapt in front of my car and I was forced to brake. Suddenly all lights inside the car started flashing wildly and in a few moments the engine went dead. The kind businessman and his assistant pushed my car to the side of the road, but still in three feet of water. I managed to perch my bag in a dry corner (I was concerned about nothing else but the visa documents inside!) and waded out to the petrol pump across the road where about 50 cars and 200 people were taking shelter as it was on slightly higher ground. The pump was 2 km from anywhere, and I badly wanted to get to the Imax multiplex because I knew I could walk home from there like the Malayali gentleman invited me to do, but it was already midnight and better sense prevailed.
So that was how I came to spend the night perched on the counter in the office of a BPCL petrol pump in Sewri. A big thank you to the company staff who were extremely kind and accomodating to everyone and even let me stretch out and sleep for a couple of hours, using a debit card reader and the cashier's change-bag as a pillow. But by morning the waters seemed to have receded till they were only a foot deep. A lot of vehicles were still stranded, but many people had decided to start homeward again. Meanwhile my excitable mother had called her friend, a Deputy Commissioner of Police, to help me but all that he could say is that he himself was stranded at Matunga! I decided to wade across to my car to drain the water from inside. The water had managed to stream out by itself, so I thought I'd try starting the car instead.
To my surprise, it started easily and I spent some time pumping the accelerator to clear out the water from the silencer. Luckily the water hadn't reached the engine. By this time, my mother had managed to despatch one of her trusted peons from Byculla to get me some food and water (I hadn't had either since 6:00 pm!) and having him around gave me the confidence to venture toward home again. The plan of Dad hiring a Tata Sumo to come tow the car home was abandoned, and we drove through the water towards Imax Adlabs (3 km away). There onwards the traffic was gridlocked again, so I gleefully parked my car in the parking lot of my favourite multiplex (which was flooded too but only six inches deep) and decided to walk home.
The road from Imax to Suman Nagar was jammed hopelessly on both sides of the road in both directions. Not a single engine was on, and most of the vehicles were empty. Seemed like a scene from The War of the Worlds, especially given the crazy angles that most vehicles were at.
The fields between the road and the RCF plant were now one big lake, and drivers had tried to push their cars onto the divider before abandoning them so that they wouldn't get swept away. As we approached the Eastern Express Highway, the water was again waist deep or more and I was shaking my head at the slums that had been swept away. Then I looked to other side of the road and saw that the ground floor of an apartment complex was simply not visible, except for the roofs of the cars in the parking lot.
We climbed onto the flyover because the road under it was flooded too deep, and from here I saw why the traffic couldn't move. The entire six lane road from Sion to Chembur was under three to four feet of water, and no vehicles were visible because they had either not tried to venture within, or were already submerged. I saw more buildings whose ground floor flats and parked cars were completely under water. I was glad that I came through the docks and not via Sion. I was later told that everything from Sion to Dadar had also been similarly flooded.
There was a steady stream of black umbrellas moving towards Chembur in the middle of the road. Thousands of people were walking on the divider in waist deep water. The army had been called in and they were busy physically lifting small cars off the road so that larger vehicles could pass. We waded through the waist deep water and were passed by a police vehicle being pushed along. The cops themselves were anxious to get home, rather than helping the army jawans. While the commissioner of police A N "dial-a-quote" Roy was busy telling news crews how his crew was "in severe stress", there was a singular absence of policemen on the road. I counted a total of 15 in a stretch of 22 km, and only 4 of them were engaged in actually helping people.
And to think at any given point of time there are 1,000 of them engaged in protecting Bal Thackeray's life. At any nakabandi
there are at least 20 of them leaning on their rifles and doing nothing. But this time, the cops didn't even bother to arrive.
Finally after walking 5 km after abandoning my car, most of it through waist deep water, I managed to meet my father at Diamond Garden in Chembur. Luckily the road was open from there to home and that's how I reached home, 18 hours after leaving office. The State Government declared Wednesday and Thursday as public holidays, presumably because they didn't know what else to do. The financial markets will reopen only on Friday. All communication and transport links were down, and I had to go one full day without Internet access! Some parts of Bombay didn't have power. Nature held the city under seige!
That was my story, and it wasn't very different in any part of Bombay. Stories are now emerging of people who walked up to 20 km through waist deep water, of residents in flooded areas who sheltered and fed the stranded masses and of private luxury bus operators who ferried people over distances that weren't flooded at subsidised fares, and of the social workers who ensured that senior citizens and women with small children boarded first. Bombay behaves itself in times of distress!
It is now Thursday afternoon and by now the roads have been more or less cleared, although in many places they have been all but destroyed by the rain and there still are some cars lying around. I managed to retrieve my car and it's running better than it ever did before. People are back at work (Bombayites will never learn!) and local transport is being restored. Phone and other communication lines are slowly coming back to normal and the first flight from Delhi to Bombay has taken off. The availability of essential supplies is coming back to normal too.
Having said all that, vast amounts of water wasn't the only thing Bombay on 26 July had in common with the movie Waterworld
. There were huge losses as well, which I'm sure will run into a few hundred million dollars in monetary terms.
- Over 100 people died in landslides in Kurla and Sakinaka as entire hillsides collapsed onto their hutments. Other casualties are still being assessed but hopefully loss of life on the roads has been minimal.
- Other parts of Maharashtra along the Konkan coast right up to Goa faced the wrath of the monsoon too and several landslides have killed over a hundred people.
- A BEST bus supposedly fell off the Dadar flyover, but none of the news channels have reported it, so I can't be certain.
- One major accident due to the rains was the collapse of one of the platforms of ONGC's oil rig at Bombay High, 160 km off the coast. It caught fire when an ONGC vessel lost control and hit the rig. About 400 ONGC employees who were on the rig and on the ship, jumped into the sea with lifeboats and without. The Navy and the Coast Guard have put out the fire since and rescued most of the people, but ten have died and 14 are missing. The good news, if you can call it that, is that most of the missing are trained divers. The loss of the rig is pretty serious because it produced four per cent of India's daily requirement of crude, at 80,000 barrels a day out of Bombay High's 260,000. However, it had been insured for $195 mn.
- Humans weren't the only beings affected. Over 23,000 heads of livestock - mainly goats and a few sheep - were drowned at the Deonar abattoir. Over 1,000 heads of cattle were drowned in the stables at Goregaon and Jogeshwari. I'm sure hundreds of stray dogs and cats have had a horrible time as well.
I shudder to think what happened to people with medical emergencies, because I saw am ambulance submerged too. Hope they got someplace safe soon.
But if you have loved ones in Bombay, and haven't managed to contact them yet - don't panic. Everything is very safe in most areas and has been so right through the chaos. It's only a matter of time before Bombay's back in business!
The sun is shining today, albeit rather half-heartedly, after weeks of grey skies! Feels very strange.Addendum:
The loss of life has been much more than previously reported. Apparently over 300 people have died in Bombay and over 500 in the rest of Maharashtra and Goa. Those are big numbers even for this country of a billion people so desensitised that the loss of life is scarcely noticed unless the death toll runs into three figures.
In addition to those killed in landslides, people in Bombay mainly died due to drowning and short circuits. Some were schoolchildren who died when a school wall collapsed, while others were found dead in their cars because they weren't able to get out in time.
The seamier side of human nature was seen when people (likely to be burglars or landgrabbers or both) started a series of rumours about a tsunami / earthquake having struck and about the floodgates of a dam having been opened. The rumour spread, most probably over sms, over much of north eastern Bombay and in fact led to the death of 22 people due to a stampede in a slum in Nehru Nagar. Some of the guys who started the rumour were caught by residents, and the cops arrived just in time to save them from being lynched.
This, however, was the only incident in which traits like avarice and panic manifested themselves. In general the people of Bombay have demonstrated remarkable calm, and just trudged on as if it was all in a day's work to battle their way home through a deluge. Those that were safe went out of their way to make the stranded ones comfortable. Not one vendor hiked up his prices, even when the shelves were all but empty. Today life is almost back to normal, banks are open (although not all ATMs are) and the BSE Sensex is up another 90 points!
But hey, isn't it time we stopped patting ourselves on the back for having such an amazing "Spirit of Bombay" and demanded better infrastructure?! In any other country, by now crews would have been out rebuilding the roads that have been destroyed.
I hope Bombayites don't always continue to suffer fo their "Oh well, life goes on" attitude.Email me for pictures of the chaos...