On Saturday (October 3) evening, it was raining heavily in Mumbai and there was waterlogging in many localities. A 32-year-old housewife, Sheetal Bhanushali, stepped out of her home in Ashapura society in Shivaji Nagar near Ghatkopar to collect ‘atta’(flour) from a nearby flour mill. Her eight-year-old son Yash wanted to accompany her, but because of rain, she persuaded him to stay at home by offering him a chocolate. The lady never returned. Her bag was found near an open manhole. The fibre cover of the manhole had been blown off under tremendous pressure of gushing drain water.
After a search lasting several hours, Sheetal’s husband, Jeetesh, who works in a garment store, filed a missing person complaint with the local police. Police and fire brigade launched a hunt for Sheetal. “We searched all the drains in a radius of 200 metres, but there was no sign of the lady”, said a sub-inspector of Ghatkopar police station. The search was later extended to Tardeo, Kurla, Saki Naka, Bandra and Mahim to which the sewage line is connected. Nearly 34 hours later, at around 3 am on Monday, Tardeo police reported that Sheetal’s body was found floating in the sea off Haji Ali shrine.
With fingers being pointed at the civic body, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) immediately went into a defensive mode. It first asked a deputy commissioner level officer to fix responsibility within 15 days, but in the meantime, BMC officials started saying that the matter appears to be suspicious. “The body should have been found in Mahim as the Ghatkopar drainage line passes through Asalfa (Sheetal’s locality) and ends in Mithi river. We are a little suspicious about the incident and are making a detailed inquiry”, said a senior BMC official.
Bhanushali’s family says, the BMC had recently replaced the concrete manhole cover with a cover made of light fibre, which cannot withstand tremendous drainage water pressure during rains. A post mortem report from BYL Nair Hospital says the death was caused by drowning.
This may be only one incident of drowning in a big metropolis like Mumbai, but looking at the sad faces of Sheetal’s two kids, presently in the care of their grandmother, my question is: whom should we hold responsible for Sheetal’s death? Was she not a victim of the callous civic system that we have in Mumbai, which boasts of funding the richest municipal body in India?
Who will reply to the plaintive query of Sheetal’s two-and-a-half year old daughter Dhwani, ‘where is my mom?’ Sheetal’s eight-year-old son Yash is silent. He knows his mom is no more, and he doesn’t want to pester his Papa any more and has therefore opted to stay silent.
I sent my reporters to Sheetal’s home, her locality and to the seafront near Haji Ali. The lane was hardly three feet wide, and a fibre cover had been put on the manhole. On Saturday evening, during rains, the cover came off due to drain water pressure, according to neighbours. It is strange that Sheetal fell inside the manhole and her body was fished out from sea, at a distance of nearly 20 to 25 km from her locality.
BMC officials say, this drain is not connected to the sea. Clearly, BMC is trying to disown its responsibility for sheer callousness. Residents of the locality have demanded that the BMC must pay compensation to the victim’s family, but Mumbai Mayor Kishori Pednekar thinks otherwise.
Pednekar questions how a body can float through a drainage system that has no outlet to the sea, and yet the body is recovered from sea. She claims that there are a lot of garbage inside the drainage system, and iron nets have been fixed inside. How could the body surface in the sea, asks the Mayor. Pednekar instead blames residents who prise open the manhole covers whenever there is a blockage in their local drainage system.
I want to remind the Mumbai Mayor that on 29th August, 2017, Mumba’s top gastroenterologist Dr Deepak Amrapurkar came out of his car stalled in the waterlogged Elphinstone Road locality, and was walking in heavy rain with an umbrella, when he fell into an open manhole. His umbrella was found at the spot. Two days later, the doctor’s body was found in Worli.
On July 29, 2019, two-year-old Divyansh fell into an open manhole in Goregaon East. His body could not be found after massive search by police, fire brigade and NDRF personnel in Goregaon, beneath the Western Railway track and near the bay at Malad. A week after the incident, BMC said that the manhole cover had been stolen by some ragpickers.
I sent one of my reporters to Santa Cruz on Tuesday. He found an open manhole right in the middle of the road opposite St. Lawrence School. BMC staff had made no effort to put a cover on the manhole. They had put a plyboard at the spot to warn people of danger.
Clearly, BMC officials are unwilling to learn from past mistakes. It is not that BMC is short of funds. Its annual budget is nearly Rs 30,000 crore. Every year, BMC calls for tenders worth hundreds of crores of rupees for cleaning drainage systems, every year BMC calls for tenders worth crores to fill up potholes on the city roads, every year BMC claims that it has made arrangements to put covers on all open manholes, but nobody knows when work is done on these projects and is completed, and who pockets the money spent from the civic body’s coffers.
I want to know who gave BMC the bright idea of replacing concrete covers with plastic or fibre ones on manholes. It is a matter of concern and can spread fear among Mumbaikars. In times of heavy rains, these fibre covers are bound to be forced open by gushing drain water. People are bound to fall in open gutters.
Shiv Sena runs both the BMC and the Mahrashtra government. Is chief minister Uddhav Thackeray listening? Can he ensure justice for eight-year-old Yash and two-and-a-half-year-old Dhwani? Will BMC wake up now, put concrete covers on all manholes and ensure that people do not fall into it? I am waiting for answers.
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