Mumbai struggles to cope with crumbling infrastructure

On Monday, a huge fire broke out in a multi-story building, which houses the office of state-owned telecom company MTNL, in Mumbai’s Bandra West area, trapping over 80 people on the terrace.

At least 14 fire engines were sent to the scene to douse what firemen called a “level-four” fire. Fortunately, there were no casualties.

A day prior to the incident, a person was killed in a fire in a four-story building near the iconic Taj Mahal Palace hotel in southern Mumbai.

When monsoons struck Mumbai earlier this month, a four-story residential building in Dongri collapsed, killing at least 13 people.

The tragedies highlight the perilous state of Mumbai’s aging infrastructure. The city, home to around 20 million people, is full of rickety buildings.

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Mumbai Brand in Hochhaus Nigam Limited (Reuters/F. Mascarenhas)Smoke billows from the MNTL building on July 22

Poor planning and rapid growth

Mumbai has seen exponential growth over the past couple of decades, with a number of high-rise buildings and skyscrapers cropping up all over the city to accommodate the needs of its burgeoning population.

The city is looking to turn itself into a global financial hub, but large parts of the city struggle to cope with annual monsoon rains, as widespread construction and garbage-clogged drains and waterways make it increasingly vulnerable to chaos.

Poor planning and inadequate safety measures have also rendered buildings vulnerable, say experts.

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“In a space-starved city like Mumbai, vertical growth is the only way to go. The higher the floor-space index (FSI), the better the vertical development, which can help alleviate housing woes and support robust infrastructure development,” Manas Jain, a real-estate developer, told DW. “But it has to be planned well.”

But civic agencies say that vertical growth has brought huge problems for Mumbai, particularly when it comes to water, sewage and traffic management.

“Mumbai has huge challenges. Instances of fire and building collapses have increased over the last few years. There has to be a concerted effort to address the city’s multiple problems. We should not wait too long,” Devidas Kshirsagar, the city’s assistant municipal commissioner, told DW.

City needs solutions

Haphazard planning has also made Mumbai vulnerable to natural and man-made calamities, say experts.

“When the city drowns after rains and people die in potholes every year, people speak about the ‘spirit of Mumbai’ that carries it forward. But this cannot last long and we need solutions,” Ravi Ahuja, a city planner, told DW.

Poor planning has been exacerbated by a lack of coordination among various government agencies. At present, nine agencies — including the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the nation’s richest municipal body — have a say in the city’s administration and development.

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The administrative problems have aggravated Mumbai’s drainage deficiencies. Official data shows that over 30% of the city’s buildings audited by the fire department are unsafe. And over 14,000 buildings that are over 50 years old are at risk of collapse, due to either age-related instability or a lack of proper maintenance.

Last year alone, a whopping 3,724 incidents of fire were reported. In December 2017, a horrific fire killed 14 people at two rooftop bars located in the famous Kamala Mills compound.

A government report last year revealed over 49,000 such incidents in Mumbai over the past decade, claiming the lives of over 600 people.

“There are no proper structural audits of the existing establishments. Some unorganized builders continue to flout safety norms and unless proactive steps are taken, it will have disastrous consequences,” Manjunath Singe, a deputy commissioner of police, told DW.

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