It's either demolition or floods for Mumbai's poor

Heavy rains are part of the landscape of the city leaving several slum dwellers homeless year after year

By Jeffrey Gettleman (Wide Angle)

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Published: Thu 31 Aug 2017, 11:04 PM

Last updated: Sun 3 Sep 2017, 1:24 AM

For many of the poor in Mumbai, India, each year contains just two seasons: the demolition season and the rain. Every winter, when Mumbai is dry, the police come with wrecking crews and rip down countless slum homes. And every summer, when the monsoon hits, many of these same areas get flooded. Filthy water, swirling with oil stains, rushes into houses and sweeps away the few possessions, leaving behind plastic bottles, coconut husks, rocks, sticks and bundles of rags.
On Tuesday night, an especially heavy storm lashed Mumbai. The Dhurves, a family of four that lives in a plastic-roofed shelter squeezed between an overpass and a set of railroad tracks, raced to a highway median - high ground - where they spent the night watching their home get swamped for the umpteenth time.
"My life will go away, fine," Babli Dhurve said on Wednesday as she sat on an old mattress, staring at her neighbours scooping up storm muck. "But what about my children?"
Here in India's financial capital, epic floods are part of the landscape. This megacity of 18 million sits on a peninsula surrounded by the sea. Many of its sewers and drains were built more than 80 years ago, when Mumbai was a small fraction of its current size. In 2005, in this same area, more than 1,000 people died during the monsoon season.
The rains on Tuesday were bad - estimated to be more than 10 inches in 12 hours - but nowhere near the deluge of 2005. The authorities said at least five people died, including one doctor walking home from work who was sucked down an open manhole. By Wednesday, the city snapped back to normal. Traffic flowed down the mud-streaked boulevards and cleanup crews sawed apart downed trees. Parts of the city still smelled fishy, though, possibly from a tidal surge that mixed with the rainwater and submerged entire streets.
As is often the case when real disaster strikes, people seemed to band together. A light rain falling, two men zoomed across a bridge on a small motorcycle, the passenger wearing a yellow plastic rain jacket and the driver wearing yellow plastic pants, apparently from one set they had divided into two. In the Dhurve family's neighbourhood, many women stepped out of their homes to help clean, wearing gowns in oranges, pinks and sapphire blues - the bright colours an almost cruel contrast to the drab surroundings they inhabit. Their houses are plastic lean-tos, dozens in a row, built on a dirty sidewalk.
"We don't even have a dream of where we would go," said Suraj Dhurve, the father.
Suraj Dhurve is a dishwasher, as are many of his neighbours. The neighbourhood is, in essence, a dishwashers' colony, although people here phrase it a little differently, saying they work in the catering business.
A new monorail runs above the road. Fancy cars swoosh past. But for this group of about 50 interconnected families, Mumbai's opulence and opportunities seem out of reach.
Most of the adults are illiterate. Families of six survive on $10 a week. Their homes are considered illegal, and when the weather is good, the police and demolition crews show up.
Nobody in the colony on Wednesday was talking about the flooding half a world away in Houston, or even seemed aware of it. But the comparison has not escaped Indian intellectuals, including those in the news business.
"India's Houston" was the headline one news site used for a Mumbai flood story. Another paper ran side-by-side photos of the floods in each place.
After news agencies reported that a curfew had been imposed in Houston to stop looting, many Indians posted proud Twitter messages saying nothing of the sort was happening in Mumbai, even in the poorest parts.
"Here in Mumbai," wrote Anand Mahindra, a well-known executive, "a friend stuck in a car to the airport for 5 hours told me that slum dwellers came out to serve stranded people tea and biscuits."
Nobody was serving tea or biscuits in the Dhurve family's neighbourhood. At the same time, as the brooms scratched the pavement and people wrung out wet clothes, there was little complaining. -The New York Times
Jeffrey Gettleman, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for international reporting, is The Times's East Africa bureau chief

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