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Torrential Rains Highlight India's Fragile Urban Landscape


India's main commercial hub, Bombay, is counting the economic losses from torrential rains that recently lashed the city. As Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi, the unprecedented chaos that followed the rains also damaged Bombay's image, and highlighted the need for India to improve its urban infrastructure.

The record-breaking rains at the end of July turned Bombay's streets into rivers, paralyzed airport and train services, and caused massive power outages for days on end.

Warehouses were flooded, and hundreds of factories across the region ground to a halt when nearly a meter of rain fell on a single day, July 26.

Bombay is not just India's financial capital, it is also the country's manufacturing and entertainment hub.

Abheek Barua, chief economist at ABN Amro Bank in India, says industrial losses will mount to more than $1 billion.

"It [Bombay] has a plethora of industries, ranging from pharmaceuticals to engineering goods, textiles. In terms of structure, they range from the very small scale to the really big ones, like the petrochemical plants," he said. "So, you are talking about a fairly large and heterogeneous manufacturing base. "

In the rural parts of Western India, agricultural losses also piled up. The region is a major producer of oilseed, cotton and sugar.

But the worries did not center on financial losses alone. Many were concerned that the collapse of India's main commercial city had severely dented the country's image as an emerging economic powerhouse.

A city that hopes to become another Shanghai simply was not equipped to cope with the heavy rains. The electricity supply was inadequate, the drainage system failed.

Some, like Ramila Sreedhar, a businesswoman from Southern India who was stuck in Bombay when the rains came down, shrugged the problems aside. She says the virtual shutting down of the city would not discourage her from doing business there in the future.

"It's an unusual phenomenon. [But] this kind of thing can happen anywhere, anytime," she said. "And in actual fact, I come from Chennai, where we had the tsunami six months ago, and I have lived all my life in Chennai, and the tsunami has just happened once."

Mr. Barua, the economist, says other cities would have struggled to cope with a deluge of the magnitude that Bombay experienced.

But, he says, the subsequent chaos in Bombay did highlight the urgent need for India to improve its urban infrastructure, if Bombay and other cities hope to attract investment.

"Bombay has chronic problems of infrastructure, and that came into very sharp focus with this event, and unless these are addressed and sorted out substantially, it will not become an international city, which attracts investments from across the globe," added Mr. Barua.

The state government says it has started drawing up plans to attend to Bombay's infrastructure problems.

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