Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Water, Water Everywhere - A View From the Kalyan-Ambernath Area: Tuesday, July 26 - Wednesday, August 03, 2005

I am alright. Thanks everyone for all those emails, SMSes, phone calls and messages on my blog. I am touched. I am fine as are most of the people around me. After being on the blink all these days the telephone landlines were restored today and I (among the few who are still dependent on dial-up access) could finally get online after eight days.

The past eight days have not been easy. Everyone who can, has already told their story about the ordeal that was and continues to be. And though Ambernath, where I live, falls in the Kalyan-Badlapur area that was amongst the worst affected by the cloudburst and its aftermath, my story, fortunately, isn't that horrific or even exciting. Unfortunately I can't say the same for some of my friends and many other people I know

Tuesday, July 26, 2005
It had been raining hard through Monday night. On Tuesday, July 26, I reached Ambernath station as always around 07:30 in the morning to find that the trains were off schedule. Meanwhile my brother who leaves even earlier called back to say that the trains were slowing down around Kalwa and there seemed to be water-logging on the tracks. And he added that he was in the only train that had left from Ambernath that morning. A train had halted mid-platform (it's a very long platform) on platform 2 -- and whenever trains do that in peak hours it's an ominous sign. I boarded the packed train and waited for about 10 minutes before I decided against going and alighted. I waited indecisively at the station for another 30 minutes or so and watched two packed trains leave from platform 3. I met a friend at the station and convinced him that it was too risky to travel and we both decided to go back home and try our chances after another hour or two. I called a colleague who stayed in Badlapur and asked him to stay back as well. He, however decided to go. The friend meanwhile who had come back with me said that he had got information that Mumbai was "dry" and he decided to go to office too (he in fact called around 12.30pm to say that he had reached office). The rain meanwhile continued to pour.

It was around 1.00pm, that it became evident that this was no ordinary deluge the kind Mumbai takes in it's stride every monsoon. My agitated sis-in-law came in to disturb me from the book that I was reading. "It looks like the old mango tree across the road is about to come down," she said. "And its scraping against our balcony. That might come down too." I went on to the balcony to find the tree leaning against the protective iron grill which was creaking under its weight. "It won't come down," and even as I was saying it, the tree went down and took an electricity pole and a telephone pole with it. Surprisingly the iron grill on the balcony was safe as were both of us. "See. The grill didn't go down, " I nonchalantly remarked to my sis-in-law, "And move. Let me go downstairs, there's work to do."

The tree had come right across our building's entrance and coupled with the live wires it ensured that none of us could get out. Two people stood as near the compound wall as was safely possible to warn people away from approaching. Somebody called the MSEB and tried calling the Fire Brigade. Another thought struck me, knowing the working style of MSEB, I reckoned it would be around two days before we would have power. The same for the telephone landlines. I went around our building asking people to stock up on water and to switch-off cell phones to conserve batteries unless absolutely necessary. It was merely a precaution and it was only later we realized what a good decision it was. MSEB folks came and said that it was raining too heavilyto work on the electricity poles. One of us finally got through to the fire brigade and the person there told us that there was no one available at the moment to help us as most units were tackling flooding in Ambernath west -- that was one thing that set alarm bells ringing in our heads. We started on clearing the tree ourselves with plenty of help from the buildings around us. Some fire brigade personnel arrived after two hours and helped us clear the road. And provided us information: Chikloli dam was overflowing -- which meant rail and road access to Badlapur and on to Karjat were cut-off. The Ulhas river was flooded. Another river that passes through Ambernath west and goes on to Ulhasnagar and Withalwadi (Our area's equivalent of the Mithi) had already flooded the market area and the Ordnance estate. Barvi dam was all set to open all its doors -- something that had never happened for as along as I can remember.

That evening I visited the station to see the tracks under a foot of water and two stalled trains. An express train had stalled further down the tracks. Access to Ambernath west was under water. Thankfully I could get through to my brother and asked him to stay back in Mumbai. I couldn't get through to any of my friends. Ambernath (all of it) had no electricity that night. The rain poured through the night.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005
The next morning I reached the railway station at my usual time to find the water lapping the edges of the platform. Both the local trains that had stalled on platforms 2 and 3 were now halted mid-way through the platforms. The force of the rushing water had pushed them back a railway official told me. As I looked skeptical, he gestured to the railway offices on the platform -- people were throwing out water. The official told me that the water had been a foot deep inside the offices that morning and had now in fact started receding. I climbed the railway overbridge to find that Ambernath west looked totally under water. The main road from the station was about five feet under water, which meant that the market place would be under twice that much. And that meant that all the godowns and shops would also have been submerged (Ambernath west has more commercial establishments, East is mostly residential). It also meant that the Ambernath telephone exchange was submerged under water -- no landlines for the next few days. I later learned that through the night a number of people from the low lying west had been evacuated or had themselves fled and come to the higher east. Barvi dam had opened all its doors in the night.

I called the office to inform that I was in no position to come to Andheri as there were no boats. That's when I learned that Mumbai had been flooded. Nearly a 300 people had spent the night in office, in darkness as the basement of the building was flooded and there was no way out. The Andheri-Kurla road was water logged.

After trying for over an hour, I got through to my brother who wisely decided to stay put in office for another day. The friend who had come back with me the previous morning only to travel to office later, called to say he had stayed in Mulund with a friend and could I ferry the message to his wife and mother. He too had been trying for over an hour on all possible landline numbers and my cell before he could get through to me. I gave him a quick lowdown about the flood in Ambernath. He decided that he would be attempting to get back home that day.

And that's how I spent most of that morning -- ferrying messages from one end of Ambernath to another. Another friend called up to say he was safe in his office and would I let his parents know. Ditto that many times over. By afternoon the battery of my cell was running dangerously low and I reluctantly decided to switch my cell on only every hour for ten minutes. Late afternoon a friend who is in the Indian Army called from Dehradun to say that he was going to be posted to the Leh border anytime and could I carry my cell to his home so that he could talk to his family. Much as I would have liked to do that, I explained the battery situation and promised to ferry the message. I went to his home to find the living room under a foot of water. His family had taken refuge in a single room on the terrace. A friend who teaches in Mulund called to say that he was safe and staying with a colleague. And yes I would ferry that message to his worried parents. That was the last message that I ferried for some time because the battery gave out right after that.

Electricity was restored in a few areas that evening including our regular "Kirana" (grocery) store. I got my cell phone recharged there. The owner of the shop must have recharged numerous cell phones for free that night.

And inspite of the rain, water supplies were running low. There was no news of what was happening outside our area. We of course, had received no newspapers since Tuesday.

Thursday, July 28, 2005
Thursday morning I dutifully trudged to the station, expecting the trains to be running, only to find the station totally vacant. The water had receded and the two trains were standing as they were the day before. The tracks were covered with loose debris and mud. And there was an horrible stink. And there were no newspapers yet.

A railway official gave details. The ballast under the tracks had been washed away for long stretches between Kalyan and Ulhasnagar. There was a fear that the bridge near Withalwadi would be severely damaged. About two kilometers down Ambernath, water from the Chikloli dam had swept away some of the track and the ballast. Badlapur station was badly affected. Ballast had been swept away for stretches between Mumbra-Diva-Dombivli-Kalyan. Tracks had been swept away for about a kilometer between Ambivli and Shahad. "It will be days before we restore the rail service," The official said. "We don't even have enough men and equipment to set things right. We haven't even got things started." And it continued to pour.

My brother who had reached started from office to get home had only reached Thane by the afternoon. He decided to go back to the office. The Kalyan-Bhiwandi bypass was still water-logged as was the other road route to Ambernath via Shilphata.

By evening news had come about the devastation the flooding had caused in Badlapur and Kalyan. One of my college professors stays in Kalyan and I tried calling him but couldn't get through. I couldn't get through to my colleague who stays in Badlapur and a close friend from college too was untraceable.

My friend who teaches in Mulund meanwhile had managed to reach Ambernath. He had hitched a ride from Mulund to Airoli, from Airoli to Shilphata. A trailer truck ferried him across the water logged Shilphata and another car brought him to the outskirts of Ambernath. The journey had taken nearly five hours but he had reached without too much of a trouble.

My other friend who had started from Mulund the day earlier had a much more horrifying journey -- I really don't know how he managed it. He tried to get to Kalyan first via the Kalyan-Bhiwandi Bypass by a share auto. There was a police van stationed on the road, but it made no attempt to stop them. A goodish stretch near Diva was under water. The rickshaw driver however still took them across. Things were okay and they made slow but steady progress till they reached the point where the road turns into Kalyan. Within minutes there was chest-deep water inside the rickshaw. The rickshaw stopped there and decided to turn back. My friend and a co-passenger decided to wade further into Kalyan and joined a group of people who were heading in the same direction. They found a police van on a high ground and decided to ask for information. They found the police serenely playing cards inside. They had no information and flatly refused to help the people who were trying to make their way into kalyan. The group pressed further on and soon the water was neck deep. They found a number of people from the nearby villages taking refuge in the trees and too shocked to come down. Cattle and the carcasses of other animals floated by. Somehow holding on to each other and helping each other they reached Kon village. By that time it was evening. They decided to take shelter in the Gram Panchayat building. But it started raining and soon it was clear that the small structure would go under. A few villagers turned up from nowhere and took the people to safety. Some families from the village took two people each from the group into their homes. Most of them already had other passers-by staying with them. My friend stayed with a family who gave him hot water for a bath, a change of clothes, warm food and a place to sleep. The next day he was given breakfast before he and others in the group set out again. The water levels had gone low but still hadn't receded completely. There was fear that rain which had started again would cause the levels to rise again. But now villagers had come out and were guiding people -- pointing out where the road had been swept away or where there were holes. The villagers had tied a guide rope along the divider and were guiding the people along it. No civic officials were to be seen. He finally reached the outskirts of Kalyan city after five hours of wading through chest deep water that day. The outskirts of Kalyan near Durgadi Killa has a number of "Tabelas." Everywhere around there were numerous dead buffaloes. The rain had got stronger and the group took refuge in a small two-storied bungalow near Durgadi. There were already about 200 people packed in that small space -- people were packed even in the kitchen. Amazingly the people living in the bungalow made hot tea for all of them and gave them each a plateful of hot pulao. And refused to accept any payment for it. They stood there for over two hours, the water meanwhile had started filling in the courtyard -- it was already about two feet deep. A local rushed in to warn that tide levels in the creek were rising and the place might be flooded and asked the people to leave. Finally after some more hours of wading my friend reached Kalyan station, totally exhausted. A private bus came by giving free lifts for people up to Badlapur. It took another two hours for him to reach Ambernath -- the road was under water in many areas and at many places it had been washed away. Ulhasnagar West is in a bad shape he told me. "I really don't know how I managed to get home in all that water. I now realize that there were so many times in that journey that one wrong foot or just a little more water and I would have died too."

And I continued to worry for my professor. He stayed in the Durgadi area in Kalyan and I couldn't get through to him.

I visited my friend who had hitched his way from Mulund. That turned out to be a good move. He had brought with him newspapers of the past two days and Thursday's newspaper too from Mulund. That's when I came to know the true extent of the disaster in Mumbai. And was surprised that there was hardly any mention of the havoc in the Kalyan-Badlapur area.

Power was finally restored that night. An Irate crowd from the section I stay in got the MSEB employees to work through the evening. Electricity was finally restored around 11.30pm. But no news. Cable TV wires were down. We can hardly get FM here.

Friday, July 29, 2005
An early morning visit to the station revealed that the status quo hadn't changed. Trains might start between Thane and Kalyan today, I was told. Relayed the same to my brother still holed up in his office in Worli. He decided to stay back and try later in the day once the Thane-Kalyan rail link was restored.

The newspaper shop at the railway station finally opened and we could get newspapers.

Cable TV was restored and now we could watch the idiotic coverage of the floods by all the news channels.

News poured in from Ulhasnagar and Badlapur. The area around RKT college was under nearly 10 feet of water. That area has numerous automobile showrooms, electronics shops and is home to Ulhasnagar's furniture and cloth market. The loss would be in crores. And a number of lives were lost too. People in the area said that they could still see the occasionally see human and animal bodies floating by.

The news from Badlapur was even more grim. Water levels in Badlapur west had reached the second floor of buildings. I still couldn't get through to my college friend. I did manage to reach my colleague. He had stayed in our office for two days and then hitched his way back to Badlapur -- a journey that took nearly eight hours. His home was safe.

A close friend called from Seattle. She wanted news and to talk to her parents and brother. After pacifying her that things were okay I asked her to call back in half an hour so that she could talk to her family.

My professor from Kalyan finally called me. He stays on the first floor near Durgadi Killa. There was six inches of water inside his home. After the water had receded, he took his family to Kalyan East to stay with his sister. Thankfully, his home wasn't damaged much. But he said that one of our university professors who teaches in Kalina and stays in Thane had barely escaped with his life. He had no details but asked me to get in touch.

My army friend called again from Dehradun. He was to leave for Leh next morning. I asked him to call me back after sometime so that I could reach his home. Finally he had a 30 minute long conversation with his wife, his kid, and his mom. And satisfied himself that they were okay.

My brother called around 8.00 that evening to say that he was finally leaving office. He reached Thane around 10.00PM and it took him a further two hours to reach Kalyan. And another hour to get to Ambernath via road. Having left early morning on Tuesday, he was finally home at around 1.00 am on Saturday.

My army friend's elder brother called around 1.30 am with a request similar to his younger brother's -- he is in the air force and stationed in Bangalore. He had been trying my cell for the last two days. We fixed a time when he could call in the afternoon.

Saturday, July 30, 2005
Still no trains from Kalyan towards Ambernath and beyond. A newspaper report said that rail services to Pune would start only around August 6.

And a new worry. My cell phone balance was really down (I use a prepaid card) and there were no recharge cards available in Ambernath.

Meanwhile some people in my section had been to Badlapur and came back with more horror stories. Many families were missing their members. Lots of dead were still turning up. And something more -- help was finally reaching the lower socio-economic classes but no one had turned up in middle class localities. People there had lost virtually everything and hadn't had a proper meal for days. We went around the homes in the section asking people to prepare food and get it to a collection point. People were also asked to provide items like old bed sheets, blankets if they had any to spare. By 12.00 we had two small tempos filled with food and spare bed sheets and blankets. Somebody also arranged for two tankers of drinking water -- I don't know how or from when -- for our section still hadn't received any water since Tuesday. I refused to go to Badlapur -- I had no news of my college friend and I had an irrational fear that I might meet him in the area the people were planning to go and I wouldn't know what to say to him.

Meanwhile people started organizing water for the section (Somebody said that the water pumps at the pumping station were still submerged and we probably wouldn't have water for a week). Kids went around asking people to open their building's overhead tanks to collect rain water. People had already started collecting rain water for use. And the two bore wells in the section were used to supply drinking water.

In the afternoon I again visited my army friend's home so that his brother could talk with his family.

Finally that evening I managed to get through to my college friend in Badlapur that evening. My worst fears were confirmed. He and his family had survived with only their clothes and a few other belongings. The water had swept away everything else. I didn't know what to say to him.

Sunday, July 31, 2005
No trains yet from Kalyan towards Ambernath and beyond. The News channels are agog with reports of more rain in Mumbai for the next 48 hours. There is now some coverage about Kalyan-Badlapur area but it doesn't even scratch the surface.

Our section organized another two tempos of food and tankers of water for Badlapur.

I managed to get through to my University professor. He indeed had been fortunate. Driving back from the Vidyanagari campus in Kalina, his car had been swamped near Kamani. He escaped from his car when the water reached neck-deep levels and took refuge with many others in a small two-storied under-construction building. Water levels continued to rise and soon there were about 50 people on the terrace. Somebody then put two planks across to the balcony of an adjoining building and all these people crawled across somehow. Two people fell and were swept away. That building's top floor offered refuge to over 200 people on the fourth and fifth floor. When the waters receded, he hitched his way home totally shaken. His car surprisingly was still around but totally useless.

Monday, August 1, 2005
My brother's birthday. We hardly had any celebrations except the mandatory midnight wake-up to wish him and some sweets. My sis-in-law got him a lucky bamboo plant -- Mumbai and our adjoining areas could all have done with more luck in the past week.

Train links to Kalyan still haven't been restored. Meanwhile the Met Dept. forecast another 48 hours of heavy rain. Thankfully the Government was up and alive this time. An alert had been proclaimed in Mumbai. Most people decided to stay home. I received an early morning SMS saying that the office was closed for the day.

I spent the day catching up with friends and family and then later looking for a refill for my cell phone. Found one in a small shop near the station. Unfortunately couldn't refill as the networks were clogged. That evening a friend and I visited one of the small dams in our area. The dam is full and only about a foot below the overflow mark.

And it rained hard through the day.

Tuesday, August 2, 2005
No trains yet to Kalyan. I went to the station to find some police patrolling the platforms. Looks like the frustrated crowd had roughed up a railway official. Not much information was forthcoming: "No work had happened yesterday because of the rains. Repairs would commence if the rains stopped."

A brave friend took a rickshaw to Kalyan (30-60 Rs a seat, he later told me, depending on the rickshaw driver's whims) and tried to get to Mumbai to his office. It took the train over an hour to reach Thane (normally it takes less than 30 minutes) and another hour to reach Dadar. And he cursed the media for faulty reporting. "The way they are going about trains between Kalyan and Thane as if they are running normal. There's a train only every 30-40 minutes and it is totally packed. I barely managed to get down at Dadar. It is only the fast tracks that are working and you can make out that the ballast has been swept away and not restored yet. The slow track is in a mess. There are large areas of tracks where you can see only the rails and nothing else. It is dangerous." He started around 5.00 PM and after an harrowing journey (hanging in the doorway with his fingertips all the way from Dadar to Kalyan) reached Ambernath around 10.30 in the night.

Water supply has been restored in some parts of Ambernath East. My section still hasn't got water yet.

Wednesday, August 3, 2005
A news channel announced that rail links had been restored between Ambernath and Kalyan and that trains were now running up to Karjat. The same friend who had traveled yesterday called around 11.30 AM to say he had reached Dadar. He had got into a train which had come from Karjat around 8.00 AM. It took 40 minutes to cover the distance between Ambernath and Kalyan -- normally it takes about 15 minutes. The track still has no ballast in many areas. The journey between Kalyan and Thane was as harrowing as yesterday and the journey to Dadar was no better.

I went to the station in the evening around 6.30 PM to inquire about the trains for tomorrow. Only four trains had been sent to Karjat through the day and four had been sent towards Mumbai. The official very apologetically said that only one more train was expected today and he had no idea when it would come. A train had been sent down to Karjat half and hour back. The same was expected to return after sometime and go to Mumbai. And again he had no idea when that would be.

"What about tomorrow?" asked a lady. "We have been asked to start as many services as possible. I think we can manage about 10 trains tomorrow."

"Timings?"

"No idea. You come to the station and wait."

Meanwhile there are reports that a frustrated mob resorted to stone throwing and blocking of the only operational fast track in Mumbra and Dombivli. Unconfirmed rumors say that a section of the fast track was damaged by the protesters. Somebody from the railways said on a TV channel that the slow track between Thane and Dombivli was now operational.

My friend who had braved the journey in the morning started back "early" at 5.00 PM again today. He reached Kalyan at around 8.15 PM and then took a rickshaw (40 Rs, this time) to Ambernath. He was home by 9.00. Interestingly he called to say that the train took the slow track between Thane and Dombivli -- and that the journey was very harrowing. "We could make out even in the fading light that there was no or little ballast below the tracks in many areas. Every time the train made a horrible noise we all wondered if this was it, the train has finally gone off-track. Soon the atmosphere was filled with nervous jokes and we wondered if the railway was using us as guinea pigs to test the track. I was relieved when I got off at Kalyan. A karjat train was announced -- but I had no clue if it would arrive in the next 15 minutes or an hour and I felt I was safer on the road then in the train."

I really wonder if the trains and tracks are safe. Normally, at peak hours, nearly three thousand (or is it five thousand?) people cram themselves in a train meant to carry a little over 1500. And that's when there's a train every four minutes. Now trains are running every 30 minutes or so. The situation must be infinitely worse. It is just that people have no alternative means of transport. I wonder how many people from the lakhs that travel from Kalyan and beyond (Karjat and Kasara) managed to get to their offices in the past few days. Train services haven't even started between Kalyan and Kasara. Here's a thought: While developing (and implementing) a plan for Mumbai, some thought will have to be given to these areas as well (Kalyan-Kasara, Kalyan-Karjat). They provide a substantial workforce to the offices in Mumbai and it's bad for the people and the business if they can't get to their offices for over a week or are worried about their safety while traveling.

What plans for me tomorrow? I called my colleague in Badlapur and at the moment we have decided to make an attempt to get to the office tomorrow. I have decided to go to the station at 7.30 am, my usual time, and then see how it goes. If a train comes and I can get into it, I will give it a try. Hope I can alight at my station and then make it back home later in the day. However if the train is too crowded and it looks like it is going to be a mighty struggle to make it to the office, I am chickening out and coming back home.

Anything else? Yes. My section still hasn't got water yet. We are still dependent on rain water and bore wells.

And, of course, as this post must have told you (and I said as much at very start of this long ramble). . . Telephone (land)lines were finally restored and I could get online today evening.

1 comment:

Shonali said...

My God!!! This is really really terrifying.... and to think of it, we had almost no idea about the extent of damage beyond Kalyan. Considering the apathy of the media as well as the government, I guess people will have to start rebuilding their lives once again - from scratch... God will give them the strength and the hope to do so... But hasn't the disaster also brought forth the true goodness in people ? Otherwise how could your friend have survived soooo many hours of wading in the all that water ... I cannot even start to imagine what it must have been to wade thru sooo much water in an unknown area and in total darkness... several times while reading thru your blog I got goosepimples ... It was all too horrifying and depressing to say the least. I hope Amol and his family come out of this soon too... You take care of yourself and don't unnecessary risks.