When the sirens wailed in Mumbai

Last Updated: Fri, Jan 04, 2013 20:37 hrs

Almost four decades ago, they were used to alert citizens about looming air attacks during war. Today, they are merely alarm clocks in a bustling city. Ranjita Ganesan traces the legacy of Mumbai's sirens

Almost everyday for the last 24 years, Daya Shankar has been setting up his tea stall opposite Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly known as the Prince of Wales museum) in Fort in Mumbai, at half past seven. He serves office-goers and college students some distance away from the bustling Gateway of India. Exactly 90 minutes later, a piercing siren wails for about 30 seconds, drowning the humdrum of traffic and talk. Nobody stops though. Instead, strides gather pace and people proceed to step up the business day. "That is our alarm clock," Shankar smiles.

More than 45 years ago, this sound was not used to tell the time. It comes from the nearby Directorate of Civil Services building, which houses one of the 273 sirens of the erstwhile Air Raid Precaution (APR) system, fully installed after the Indo-China war of 1962. The sirens alerted citizens of possible air attacks during the wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1970-71 and were a cue for people to seek shelter immediately.

"When the siren was sounded, I used to switch all the lights off and wait for the danger to pass," says Harbindar Singh, sitting at his desk in Alfa Sports, a sprawling sports goods store established by his grandfather in 1938 next to the iconic Metro Cinema in Marine Lines. Singh was in his 30s at the time. "We never had shutters for the shop, just glass doors. So, I could see the fighter planes leaving behind vapour trails," Singh recalls with furrowed brows, tracing a line in the distance with his hand.

The sirens would sound for two to five minutes in those days. The motors, which resemble water supply pumps, emitted sounds that travelled loud and clear within a three-kilometre radius.

At 19 years of age, Sanjeevan Joshi was a fresh recruit to the Mumbai civil defence service during the Indo-Pak war of 1970-71. At the time, there were said to be some 400 sirens across Mumbai as part of the centrally-operated ARP system. On the instruction of the Air Force, the civil defence officials would set off and silence all sirens using a single device from the ground floor of the directorate building.

"The "warbling" or up and down tone was to warn of looming attacks and the "all-clear" signal or a plain tone meant the danger had been averted," Joshi, retired additional controller of civil defence, recounts systematically, as if reading from a manual. The 60-year-old remembers the tense atmosphere in the control room that would be replaced with palpable relief when the threat had subsided.

As instructed by their teachers, Rajan Mankame and his classmates would duck under the school benches, hands flying to cover their heads at the sound of a prolonged siren in the 60s.

"We had very little experience of war and did not know what to expect," the retired banker and long-time resident of Girgaum says. "The sirens prepared us by letting us know when something was wrong." The development of speedy means of communication might make the sirens look obsolete, but they can come in handy at the time of natural disasters like storms and cyclones, Mankame points out.

The ARP was also used in 1979 when US space station Skylab crashed in Australia as there was a slight possibility of it falling on India. More recently, some sirens were sounded in 2006 during former President Abdul Kalam's visit to Mahim railway station, to pay his respects to the victims of the serial train bomb blasts in the city.

Today, the sirens mostly sit atop government buildings, police stations and some landmark locations in Mumbai. Of the sirens that have survived till date, only 234 are said to be in working condition. Two of these, located at the directorate office and Cross Maidan, are tested daily at 9 am.

The sirens were connected by phone cables and the ARP system would set them off by transmitting signals through telephone exchanges. But the deluge of July 26, 2005 destroyed many of these cables leaving the system in disarray.As it follows, the main control device, which looks like a vintage telephone with three big buttons and a key, is now defunct and so are some of the exchanges that relayed the signals. Now, volunteers deployed at the various spots have to consult their wristwatches and flip a switch to test individual sirens manually once a month.

Another hiccup in the functioning of the sirens is that the Public Works Department (PWD) and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL), which maintain these cables, have not been able to dig up roads to repair the original electric wires.

"The system also needs to be reviewed as technology has advanced a lot since," says a civil defence official. About a year ago, the directorate had proposed for the electric sirens to be replaced by a centrally-controlled wireless system with audio-visual capabilities, so it would be possible to also make announcements and display warnings. The proposal, however, is still pending with the government.

The sirens located in old buildings of the city are temporarily shifted when these buildings go in for redevelopment. But when construction is completed, many residents object to their re-installation. "They complain that the siren is too heavy. They do not realise that it is needed," rues the official, who requested not to be named. As part of a recent policy, the directorate does not allow the sirens to be photographed.

Most people today mistake the 9 am siren as the signal for the beginning of the shift at nearby offices, unaware of the sirens' past significance. As it stands, an important piece of our history and infrastructure is just half a minute of noise.

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