Mumbai Notebook

Anil Dharker is a journalist and former editor. He is an Open columnist
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Heat in the city, a bonanza for builders and a tribute to our real heroes

MUMBAI IS SWELTERING. This may seem like an exaggeration to people who live in north India, where temperatures routinely climb into the 40s, but it’s not. The rising mercury, however, is not surprising because February, which is the last of the city’s winter months, experienced record highs: at 38.80 Celsius, it was the second hottest February day in ten years.

The breeze wafting in from the Arabian Sea is supposed to be our saving grace, and being caressed by air, especially if it’s not hot, is a blessing. But the sea is not entirely benign. It brings about increased humidity, and humidity brings about an increase in the Heat Index. This is a measure of how hot we feel when relative humidity is factored with air temperature: If, for example, the temperature is 300 Celsius with a relative humidity of 60 per cent, the temperature the human body feels is 330. You can imagine the ‘felt’ temperature at 380 and 80 per cent relative humidity. Why does this happen? Simple: increased humidity means more moisture in the air, so the ability of the human body to release heat through evaporation is inhibited. The heat index has been rising every year, so the discomfort we feel is only going to increase.

You can blame everything on global warming, and that’s such a big problem that neither you nor I can do anything about it. But there are such things as local factors. Go to an open space where greenery abounds—say Hanging Gardens in the heart of Mumbai—and the air suddenly seems cleaner, fresher and cooler. That’s why every Sunday evening, not just Hanging Gardens, but Chowpatty Beach, Juhu Beach, Shivaji Park and any other open space you can think of is teeming with people. They come in droves and there’s not an inch anywhere. Consider the irony: people go to work in this most densely packed of cities every weekday, jostling through multitudes in trains, buses and traffic; then on a Sunday, to get away from it all, they go to an ‘open’ space swarming with people.

The figures are staggering. Mumbai has 2.5 sq km of parks, 4 sq km of playgrounds and 7.7 sq km of recreation grounds. That adds up to just over 14 sq km of open space for 12.4 million people. These figures are a bit dated; with population growing, and open spaces staying static, the proportion has got worse. But even with these older figures, open space per Mumbaikar works out to 1.1 sq metre The figures for New York and London are, respectively, 26.4 and 31.7 sq metre per person. That means New York gives its citizens 26 times more open space per person than Mumbai, and London 31 times more.

So what does our government do? The obvious, which is to increase parks, gardens, grounds, etcetera? Of course not: it reduces everything. All state governments are builder friendly; the present Fadnavis government of Maharashtra beats them all. Every day, you hear news reports of officially approved encroachments on open spaces: Aarey Colony gardens one day, salt pans another day, the BKC ground held for large events a third day. And, all so often, mangroves—needed for Mumbai’s coastal protection and an easy target for predatory builders.

As I write this, news comes in that the city’s much-delayed Development Plan (2014-2034) has been cleared by the Chief Minister. Predictably, it adds up to a builders’ bonanza: taller buildings around the under-construction Metro corridors, commercial complexes with double today’s Floor Space Index (which means doubling the office space area that can be built on the same plot of land) and the opening up of no development zones for ‘affordable housing’. Affordable housing? What’s that?

FOR BOMBAYITES (not Mumbaikars), there is an extra- ordinary set of people who seem to have been around forever. It’s only an illusion of course, because their numbers diminish (mercifully slowly): Nissim Ezekiel and Dom Moraes, the poets, left us some years ago; the much- loved and lauded architect, Charles Correa, more recently. But there are those whose impact is still felt everywhere: Gerson da Cunha with AGNI and Shakespeare; Alyque Padamsee, ceaselessly acting and directing; Julio Ribeiro still ramrod straight, physically and morally; Sabira Merchant, delightful as ever on the stage (how does she remember her lines when I can’t even remember my neighbour’s name?); Shyam Benegal, for six years an active Rajya Sabha member, and still making films. And Dolly Thakore, once the voice of Doordarshan, now still a vital part of Mumbai theatre. She celebrated her 75th birthday recently with much of the Old Guard present. It’s amazing what they’ve done for the city (and well beyond) over the years: fighting for all the right causes, taking the civic administration to task over lapses and policies, ensuring that neighbourhoods stay clean and elections are fair, keeping cultural flags flying high. May their tribe never decrease.