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Mumbai wall collapse killing 29 a state-induced disaster: Fact-finding team

Counterview Desk
On July 1, 2019, following an unremitting downpour, a 2.3km boundary wall that ran alongside Ambedkar Nagar and Pimpripada in Malad area of Mumbai collapsed at two places on the homes of the residents. Malad had received as much as 183 mm of rainfall in a short span of 3 hours between 10 pm on June 30 and 1 pm on July 1.
The mayhem and confusion following the collapse of the wall, which claimed 29 lives, leaving 130 injured, was compounded by “a sluggish relief response by the authorities”, notes a civil society fact-finding report, prepared after a civil society group’s visit* to the affected area and interacting with those who were affected by it.
Around 140-160 houses were completely destroyed in Ambedkar Nagar; the number is around 65 in Pimpripada. Around 80-95 houses (both areas included) were flooded and sustained extensive damage to property. While children’s education has been set aside in this period of uncertainty, for individuals working in the informal sector, the disaster dealt a pernicious blow to their livelihood, the report, titled "Malad Wall Collapse: A State-Induced Disaster", says.

Excerpts:

Like most disasters, the wall collapse in Ambedkar Nagar and Pimpripada was the result of a range of factors and cannot be attributed to a single cause, such as unusually high rainfall. The wall, built to physically and visually block out the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai’s (MCGM's) reservoir facility from the settlement, breached in two places causing terrible devastation and loss of human life.
While the topography of the site, and the spell of intense rainfall – a regular occurrence in Mumbai and therefore not entirely unexpected – played a role in the incident, the other factors that contributed to this disaster were manmade and, quite obviously, foreseeable and avoidable.
The people who lost their lives or their homes had been promised resettlement as early as 1997. Despite the precarious conditions of the tenements, there was no assessment of the risk of rainfall-induced events on the settlement nor were any measures undertaken to alleviate the risk; instead, a poorly designed wall was built between the settlement and the reservoir plot without understanding the site topography and natural drainage patterns, endangering the settlement even more.
The conditions that predisposed the community and the settlement to disaster are not difficult to explain. The people of this settlement have over the years been rendered increasingly vulnerable, first by leaving residents no choice but to seek shelter on a precarious site, then by ignoring the risk that the site poses to their health and safety, and subsequently by spending on infrastructure designed to keep the environment 'safe' from people, rather than to ensure safety of settlements from climate events like this one.
This increasing vulnerability made the settlement and residents prone to disasters like the one on the night of July 1. Each of these stages of increasing vulnerability reveals the staggering callousness of the state and society for the city's working poor, who are first attacked as 'encroachers', then denied their rights as citizens, and finally simply walled out of sight.

Background

Pimpripada and Ambedkar Nagar are part of a larger settlement that lies on forest land – a section of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP). Dating back to the 1990s, the settlement abuts the Malad Reservoir facility, and is spread over approximately 46 acres.
The settlement has been under legal scrutiny since the writ petition filed in 1995 by an environmental NGO demanding demolition of the hutments. Another petition filed by the residents called for the consideration of the resident’s right to housing and livelihood as many were there out of necessity and not out of choice.
Most of the people in the community belong to economically and socially marginalised groups, predominantly Dalits and Muslims. Thereafter, an Order dated May 7, 1997 was passed by Chief Justice MB Shah and Justice FJ Rebello of the Bombay High Court which ordered for rehabilitation of residents before demolitions:
"With respect to the slum dwellers residing within the National Park Division whose names appear on the electoral rolls prepared with reference to 1st January, 1995 or any date prior thereto and who continue to live in the same structure, it is directed that the State Government shall within 18 months from date, relocate these persons outside the boundaries of the National Park Division, in keeping with their present policies, and thereafter demolish the structures occupied by them. Until such time electricity and water supply to the structure will also be allowed to be continued."
The area has remained in a state of inaction and people are still awaiting their rightful rehabilitation. The settlements of Ambedkar Nagar and Pimpripada have continued to be deprived of basic amenities like water, sanitation and electricity. There is no drainage system, nor pakka roads within the settlement. Electrical connections were made available only recently, but as is common in many informal settlements, residents pay much more for basic services than those living in formal settlements.

Concerns and fears

Caretakers of those injured in hospitals reported being completely dependent on relatives, well-wishers, civil society relief workers for food, clothes and transportation. We came across multiple instances of individuals, even entire families who had been discharged but had not signed the discharge papers for they did not have a home to go to. The ones who were undergoing treatment and who did not have a similar support system admitted being clueless as to where they would go once discharged.
Those staying in Ambedkar Nagar and Pimpripada fear the consequences of another torrential downpour. Even at the time of the site visit, the area was facing heavy downpour. Residents, even those with serious medical concerns, admitted not being able to leave the house / site for fear they would lose out on their claim to rehabilitation, should the government come for a survey. Many also reported staying back on the site of destruction amidst continuing downpour out of fear of vandalism of what remains of their belongings.
Electricity services, which had previously been erratic (not to mention unaffordable) are now almost completely disrupted in many homes. There is also the added risk of water-borne and vector borne diseases like leptospirosis or malaria; while the risk existed even before the floods owing to open drains, general lack of sanitation and stagnant water, it is much more serious at this point in time.
While MCGM has subsequently started providing medicines as a precautionary measure, rehabilitation is the only real solution to address the concerns of the community. Under these circumstances, the issue of rehabilitation at a place of safety and comfort becomes one of paramount importance. The state, however, has so far not gone beyond providing assurances and, disturbingly, has been considering the Mahul Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) township, a place which the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has declared ‘unfit for human habitation’, for their resettlement.

Poor planning and wall design

The MCGM’s water reservoir facility is located on a hill approximately between 70 to 80 meters above Mean Sea Level, and the settlement of Pimpripada and Ambedkar Nagar lies downhill from the facility, on a slope between 60 to 30 meters. At the lowest end of the settlement lies a natural drain, that goes around the hill, moves north to south along through the settlement, and then turns west to eventually join the Malad Creek.
A narrow road abuts and runs along the length of the wall inside of the plot. During our visit to the affected site, we observed that the road abutting the wall sloped on both sides towards the point where the wall breached (shown in dotted arrows). This led to the runoff water collecting behind the wall exerting pressure which it wasn’t designed to withstand.
During the rain, the storm runoff due to the topography of the site was blocked by the constructed boundary wall, and the existing drainage outlets proved quite insufficient. The wall built around the reservoir was meant to be a visual and physical barrier, not a retaining wall. The difference between a retaining wall and a compound wall is that unlike the former, the latter is not designed to resist lateral pressure of the soil when the ground level is changed on different sides of the wall.
To make matters worse, the wall was poorly designed, in that it did not have any outlets or holes to allow surface runoff – which would have released the pressure of water that logged behind it. The only outlet for water was a culvert under the asphalt, which was most likely clogged by the vegetation that was washed away and carried by the flow. Finally, the water that percolated into the soil where the water logging took place, softening the soil below the asphalt, that in turn ended up weakening the foundation and pressuring the wall even more.
On examination, it emerges that the wall was built without taking into consideration the topography of the site, and the extent of storm runoff and drainage during heavy rain. To build a road on the periphery of the reservoir facility, a retaining wall (typically widening at the base with deep foundations) ought to have been constructed, that would withstand the lateral soil pressure.
In addition to the culvert, storm water outlets should have been provided at the road level to prevent water logging. If the protection of the property from informal settlements was the purpose of the wall, a mesh wire fence mounted on a retaining wall would have served both purposes (allowing road construction as well as protecting the property).
The separation wall was built as an imposed barrier between the settlement and the MCGM plot, and like all similar walls built in cities around the world, it is a symptom of a divided city, and the embodiment of apathy and contempt towards an excluded population.
The fact that these rather elementary aspects were not considered suggests that the true purpose of the wall was not to protect the residents of the settlements below from landslides and floods, not simply to build a road for the reservoir facility, not even to prevent occupation of public land by squatters, but to rid the land and its facilities above from the sight and presence of the poor.
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Members of the fact-finding team: Bilal Khan, Activist: Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, NAPM; Brinelle D’souza, Academic and Activist: ICWM, PUCL; Hussain Indorewala, Academic and Urban Researcher: KRVIA, CSA; Lara Jesani, Lawyer: People’s Union for Civil Liberties; Mukta Manya, Student: Tata Institute of Social Sciences; Priyanjali Jha, Student: Jesus and Mary College, Delhi University; Sitaram Shelar, Activist: Centre for Promoting Democracy; Sreeshreshtha Nair, Student: NM College; Supreeth Ravish, Student: Tata Institute of Social Sciences; Kalamuddin Idrisi, Activist: Habitat and Livelihood Welfare Association; Vaishali Janarthanan, working in Child Rights Advocacy; and Pani Haq Samiti members

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