Rain adds death and suffering to India

In recent weeks, I studied with interest stories and photos moving on The Associated Press wire depicting destruction on the other side of the world.

Certainly Mother Nature brought about an equal amount of despair to the United States and poor Caribbean islands in the last few weeks.

But misery in the massively overpopulated city of Mumbai, India, and in that country’s rural farmlands comes from regular, cataclysmic flooding throughout August and September. There, it’s an accepted usual occurrence, so painfully common that residents barely flinch when the torrential rains begin.

While swirling, possibly toxic, flood water was unprecedented in Houston and parts of Florida this year, in Mumbai, it’s just rain.

I know this because I had the opportunity to travel to India in 2014 as part of a group of American journalists hosted by Tata Group, one of India’s largest conglomerates. Tata owns Thomas Steel Strip in Warren, and as the Tribune Chronicle’s then-business editor, I was invited to meet company leaders and tour Tata’s manufacturing facilities.

I remember being swept from the airport into a taxi to head into Mumbai’s night without an idea of what to expect. As we whisked past multiple-story shanty towns that thousands of destitute families called home, I wondered how it was possible that these vertical rows of flimsy shanties didn’t collapse. I remember “street dogs” roamed, the non-stop honking of car horns and the stench of garbage piled everywhere. You see, trash removal is not a high priority in a country where things like potable water is a privilege. Ropes and wires strung among the buildings bore unending lines of clothing. I’m not quite sure if the purpose was to dry clothes or simply provide some semblance of privacy.

Personal space is not easily come by in this country of 1.3 billion people. Tiny cars were parked on bridges with people sitting on the roofs and hoods in the middle of the night. With no place to go and nothing to do, residents often will seek “privacy” in public places.

During my stay, we traveled from urban Mumbai, through rough terrain that further revealed this country’s poor inhabitants. The depths of poverty here reach far beneath what we Americans call poor.

It was May and there was stifling heat. I recall staring out the window of our air-conditioned van at the rundown homes made of pieced-together plywood with no running water. In the early morning hours I witnessed women heading to the fields to seek “privacy” to relieve themselves before heading to the rivers to bathe and then to communal wells for fresh water.

We experienced a rare spring storm on an evening when we visited an open-air market that I can only describe as beyond crowded. The Indians were undaunted by the downpour, likely because they are so accustomed to it.

The Associated Press reported that in the last two months, more than 1,000 people have been killed in flooding across India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Homes, businesses and crops were destroyed for some 40 million more.

In Mumbai, water swamped offices, schools and roads. About 60 people were killed including 33 in the collapse of a 117-year-old apartment building with a foundation weakened by flooding.

It had been declared unsafe six years ago, but families were still living there.

Thousands of buildings in Mumbai are more than a century old, their foundations weakened by years of heavy rains during the annual June-September monsoon season.

It was the second Mumbai building to fall in recent weeks, after a four-story building toppled in a city suburb last month, killing 17.

I studied pictures of the twisted metal, carnage and search dogs being used to seek out survivors among the rubble.

“The city was brought to its knees,” said Darryl D’Monte, a Mumbai-based environmentalist.

I wonder how it could have been any worse for these people already living in overwhelming poverty.

blinert@tribtoday.com

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