A new task force to help Mumbai survive the monsoon
The newly formed City Disaster Response Force will carry out relief and rescue operations during calamities
Last week, when the waters sloshed over the railway tracks on Mumbai’s central line, Namrata Bhosale was in the ladies’ coach of a halted local train bound for the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST). Sion station, the next stop, wasn’t visible from the door but it was a 10-minute walk on the waterlogged tracks. Some of the women in the coach started getting antsy; some wanted to get off and wade to the station ahead.
But this was exactly the kind of situation, Bhosale, 29, was prepared for.
As a member of the City Disaster Response Force (CDRF), a reserve force that has been constituted this year, Bhosale had spent one intensive month training for potential situations. This wasn’t a disaster and she was off duty—in fact, on her way to work and still in her civilian clothes—but she tried to take charge informally. Calming people down is one of the first things to do, and she ensured they stayed on board and waited. The train began to move again about half an hour later, slicing through the dirty waters. By then she had earned admiring words and glances from her co-passengers. “People are happy to know that such a force exists," says Bhosale, “and we are prepared."
In a ground-floor room of a Brihanmumbai municipal corporation (BMC) building in Parel, Bhosale and eight other team members are on standby duty one Thursday morning in July. About 15 of their colleagues are patrolling the city’s six beaches—Aksa, Gorai, Juhu, Girgaum, Versova and Dadar—since it’s a high tide day.
Wearing a fluorescent yellow jacket over a police-style khaki uniform, Bhosale sits with Mumbai’s first batch of CDRF recruits. Crafted along the lines of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) as a dedicated unit for the incident-prone city, it includes 200 security guards, nine paramedical staff, 12 fire department staff and six assistant security officers. The team’s guards constitute the main manpower of the force, and are made up of security staff that usually patrols and protects the corporation’s properties.
The NDRF, a central body under the National Disaster Management Authority, with its state headquarters in Pune, is called upon whenever the need arises. An NDRF team is, in fact, based in Andheri, but it has on occasion been unable to reach some spots quickly. “We thought, why not train our own people, they are placed locally and it would be easier to mobilize them?" says I.A. Kundan, the additional commissioner who oversees disaster management. “Why not have our own system? Ours is the first municipal corporation doing this."
When the decision on a dedicated unit was taken, 200 members were recommended by the security department for the task, and pulled out to form the team. They were trained over four months in batches. When the monsoon ends, some of the staff will return to their normal duties, with a core team on standby, but the idea, says Kundan, is that they will be disaster-ready.
Leading to the room where the new recruits are seated are framed artworks depicting some of the possible situations that could arise in Mumbai: epidemics, cloudbursts, fires, earthquakes, tsunamis. The city is located in a region of moderate seismic activity, and has, over the years, seen several episodes of severe flooding, not to mention man-made disasters, such as terrorist attacks. The dangers are only amplified by the monsoon; roughly a three-month annual window auguring tree falls, road accidents, bridge and building collapses, and flooding. Last year’s Elphinstone Road bridge tragedy was one such calamity brought on by the rains and poor crowd control; other recent instances have included the water-logging and deaths following the heavy rains in Vasai and Virar last week and the Andheri bridge collapse earlier in the month.
“When there is rain beyond 150mm, any city would be exposed to a crisis—and this happens because of the reclamation of wetlands, alteration of the natural landscape and the high degree of concretization," says Rishi Aggarwal, an environmental activist and director of the Mumbai Sustainability Centre. “Road design is poorly thought out so water flows to the centre, drainage networks have not been enhanced, and the cynical politics of exploiting the city’s real estate for personal gains is the real disaster."
This season’s tally of mishaps already makes for grim reading: The Andheri bridge collapse on 3 July left one dead, the 28 June chartered aircraft crash in Ghatkopar left five dead, buildings have collapsed in Kurla and near CST. Earlier this year, the corporation identified 619 buildings as “C1", or dilapidated buildings dangerous to inhabit, an exercise it undertakes every year to alert and evacuate residents before the rains.
Before coming to the basement of the City Institute of Disaster Management on the morning of 12 July, Rajendra Lokhande had been sitting in the control room on the building’s third floor, keeping an eye on the images rolling on to the multiple screens streaming footage from points across the city.
He too has undergone training though his role as control room supervisor, along with assistant security officer Sushil Sahani, is largely supervisory.
Preparation has broadly been on four fronts: flood-water rescue situations, collapsed structure rescues, initial medical response such as first aid, and CBRN, or chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear incident scenarios. All of them had already received basic training when they were recruited into the security department in 2014, but many didn’t know specific skills such as swimming, for instance, handling heavy equipment, or the specifics of dealing with calamities. The month-long training for each recruit involved drills and simulations as well as theoretical exercises. Periodic refresher programmes are being planned as well.
The cavernous room hosting the team has a mezzanine floor, or “gallery", where displays are being prepared of disaster situations: one panel of a tsunami, another of climate change. A thick rope lies to one side, a few deep-blue suitcases containing first-aid kits on another.
The force hasn’t been deployed yet— they are still being eased into their duties since it is their first season on the job—and will be called into action only if the fire department, the first responders, feel the need. “They are not the primary responders, and so far the fire department has fortunately not felt the need for extra support," says Mahesh Narvekar, chief officer disaster management, at the BMC.
Still, its members have been vigilant, awaiting their first call-up. After the plane crash in Ghatkopar, Amruta Jadhav, one of the guards, rung up colleagues on the morning shift to find out if it might be their first day in the field. It was not. Jadhav, 26, checked in when the Andheri bridge collapsed too. “No incidents should happen, but if they do, we are prepared," says Avinash Sonar, her colleague.
As those incidents unfolded in Mumbai, some had their eyes on the cave rescue drama taking place in Thailand. Probably not an operation they will likely encounter, but a twinge of empathy and recognition of the challenges pulsed through the group all the same. “They were such small children, I felt very bad," says Bhosale.
All the members of the force are young—under 30, and were recruited to the corporation in 2014—and about 30-40 of them are women. The training has been identical.
Most of them finished school and joined the service in search of a steady job and a regular salary. Some take up to 4 hours a day to commute to work. And many have, over the years seen the ravages the monsoon can wreak on the city, and the body blows it is capable of delivering to its creaking infrastructure.
Many of them were teenagers during the July 2005 deluge, and some recall thigh-high flooding at home. More recently, during last year’s flood on 29 August, when the city recorded 944mm of rainfall, Bhosale spent three days at Rajawadi Hospital in Ghatkopar, where she was then posted as a guard. “How could we go home?" she asks. “It was not safe to travel." Another colleague had been posted at KEM Hospital during the 23 September Elphinstone Road Station stampede when 23 people lost their lives and the injured were rushed in.
Sonar, 26, admits to an occasional undercurrent of fear, a dribble of self-doubt. “But," he says, channelling his inner Salman Khan, “dar ke aage jeet hai (beyond fear lies victory)." Lokhande joins in the laughter, pointing out that these young men and women are also referred to as jawans, in the manner of Armed Forces personnel.
“We may not be securing the country’s border," says Sonar, “but we are also doing a form of service. Serving your country can be of different kinds." But there are things even the bravest jawans cannot do: circumvent disasters altogether through better macro planning.
“In terms of readiness, we are doing a better job, but we are not doing enough to prevent such situations," says Mahesh Kamble, assistant professor at the Jamsetji Tata School of Disaster Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. He highlights the hands-on control room, the technology upgrades and the work of the fire department as positive features. “But our entire development plan needs to be seen critically."
Kamble mentions the key problems plaguing the city: the garbage-clogged drains that prevent smooth water outflow and the rampant construction that has neutralized and marred marshes and mangroves—topographic features key to the city’s good health. “The city’s water-carrying capacity has reduced," he says. “We are inviting disasters; that is where we are failing."
He cautions that the proposed coastal road running along the marine rim, which will impact natural drainage, will pose further problems in coming years. Further, climate change and the development of “urban heat islands" are leading to an increase in the number of extreme weather events in general.
Kundan concedes that the systems aren’t perfect but believes things have been improving, with better response speeds, smoother coordination between agencies and improved equipment. “Perfection takes time," she says. “There has been a paradigm shift in terms of disaster management. Preparedness has definitely improved."