Cyclone Nisarga arrived on the west coast of India and departed soon, but was it the once in a century event, that the media made it out to be?
First of all, Mumbai is extremely lucky to have escaped the predicted fury of the cyclone, as the timing of the cyclone coincided with low tide off Mumbai at about 4 pm. Otherwise even a weaker storm could have caused massive damage, to add to the misery caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, as the mishandling of civic and infrastructure issues in Mumbai are notoriously well-known. Destruction by natural calamities, whether floods or droughts, have traditionally been an easy way to cook books that are already leaking like sieves. Thus, a lot of the hype around "Cyclone of the Century", attribute everything to it and then they write more poems about the Spirit of Mumbai.
Secondly, the much-publicised episode of a cargo aircraft skidding on the runway at Mumbai's airport during the cyclone, has more to do with the state of affairs of the airport, the intersecting runways, and the environs therein, than to any form of heavy weather.
Pilots on the cargo aircraft are trained to operate in much worse weather conditions globally, across extremes, and the wind-speed as well as rain in Mumbai yesterday was nowhere close to the inclement weather seen regularly across the world. In addition, cargo does not complain or throw up due to bumpy weather, and properly strapped in, cargo does not move around messing with trim and balance at critical moments, either.
Thirdly, historically, the waters off Mumbai, have never been considered dangerous or treacherous the way the waters off Oman or South of Socotra have been. Monsoons are tough, sure, but you do not want to be off Oman or South of Socotra when the seas are rough, Mumbai is where ships always sought refuge. In monsoons and bad weather, sailors for centuries and even now opt to stay closer to the coast of India and then go towards Aden. Mumbai is a Port of Refuge and not a dangerous port for sailors.
It is important to point out that barring one passenger ship Karnika (ex-name Pacific Jewel), arrested for different reasons, every other ship at and off Mumbai Port simply rode out the storm.
Which, by the way, is why Mumbai was the primary port on the West Coast of India for the British. It was safe compared to the other port options between Mumbai and Goa. In addition, the rulers of areas in the Konkan and Kolaba coasts weren't giving in as easily as those around the place what is today Mumbai. Yes, certainly the inland ports in the Gulf of Khambat along the Tapti and Narmada were historically even safer, but for multiple reasons the Colonial rulers could not get easy access to them the way they managed Goa and Mumbai seaports.
Storms at this time of the year in the Arabian Sea are linked to the monsoons. Monsoon winds come roaring up the west coast of India, and then angle off towards Oman and then points generally further North-West or even West.
Here, again, I mention Socotra. As young navigating officers it was drilled into our heads - never go anywhere near Socotra around the monsoons as strange things were known to happen there in such weather. The shortest route from the south of Sri Lanka or Malacca to the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea takes you south of Socotra. It was much better to sail northwards, along the west coast of India, keeping within striking distance of Mumbai, and then head almost due west towards Aden, long way around.
Using this longer route, you would have the storm either behind you or ahead of you, in both cases safer than having the storms on your beam (the beam of a ship is its width at its widest point). But the larger point here is this - when the weather was stormy in and around the west coast of India, Mumbai was the safest place to be in or near.
In short, there are very few safe ports other than Mumbai during the monsoons in the North Indian Ocean.
So what has changed in the last few years, why are even small storms so risky for Mumbai and its environs now?
a) Climate change. Warmer seas, shifting wind patterns, and bad weather coming up the coast striking inland over Kolaba - Konkan - Mumbai. This is new.
b) As mentioned earlier, the infrastructure of Mumbai is not geared to take bad weather in a sensible manner.
Nowhere else in the whole world do you have this kind of super-density of population, dwelling units and workspace, so badly built that even low intensity storms can create the kind of chaos NISARGA could have created if it was six hours earlier or three-four hours later.
And that's about as truthful as it gets, whilst I also wait for empirical evidence that Mumbai is still the financial capital of India, because to my observation - it is now a worn-out cliché.
Dear Mumbai, I love you like very few other cities, I have studied in Bombay, fallen in love in Bombay, and owe Bombay so much. But please, the next simple storm, if it arrives at High Tide, will not be as forgiving as Nisarga was. Please fix your dwelling units and workspaces, to start with.