Mumbai Notebook

Anil Dharker is a journalist and former editor. He is an Open columnist
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Rajat Gupta's book launch and Maximum (polluted) City

IN PERSON, RAJAT Gupta isn’t a big man, but he does have a large presence. At 70, there’s a mellow handsomeness about him; in conversation he exudes an air of almost spiritual calm, unexpected of someone in the cut and thrust of high finance and management.

Literature Live! recently launched his book Mind Without Fear to a packed audience. In the hour-long conversation with TV and print journalist Govindraj Ethiraj that followed, Gupta spoke modestly about the lucky break that got him a job at McKinsey & Company and how he rose rapidly in its ranks to become its first foreign-born managing director. (He was also the youngest). He later went on to become a board member of major corporations as well as an advisor to the United Nations, the Rockefeller Foundation and the World Economic Forum. He also served as the chairman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Advisory Board.

From these pinnacles of success to the hell of going to jail is a tragedy of almost Greek proportions. Rajat Gupta, though, spoke about it matter-of-factly, giving enough details of what transpired between him and the Sri Lankan hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam to convince all of us present of his innocence in insider trading, and how circumstantial evidence brought about his conviction. Plus, of course, the political ambitions of the New York state prosecutor Preet Bharara, who went after Gupta with single-minded zeal.

Rajat Gupta gave the audience insights into the American prison system which calls itself ‘correctional facilities’, while being anything but. The primary reason is that the prison system is privatised, so there’s a built-in profit incentive to keep jails always full. This must explain the statistic of 67 per cent recidivism: reform is the last thing on anyone’s mind; they want prisoners coming right back. Prison guards, Gupta said, are focused on breaking down your spirit—and when they found that he was managing to cope somehow, they sent Gupta into solitary confinement. He took a copy of the Bhagavad Gita with him, which he read and re-read to keep his spirits from flagging in the seven weeks he was there. “I don’t understand you,” a guard said to him one morning, “You don’t seem to mind being in solitary.” “Why should I mind,” Gupta told him, “I am here by myself with full room-service, and I get to talk to you.” That was the end of his solitary confinement.

After a total of two years in jail, he is back at work, mainly in philanthropic endeavours in the fields of education and health. Whatever his detractors may say, Rajat Gupta has created a lasting legacy in India, in the form of the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, counted amongst the world`s elite management institutes. Two of his co-founders, Adi Godrej and Purnendu Chatterjee were present at the event in a touching show of solidarity: real friends are those who always stand by you.

A SURVEY DONE a month ago gave my city a distinction no Mumbaikar wants it to have: we live in the most polluted city in Maharashtra, and now ranked 71 in the world. You remember the photographs of Chinese inhabitants of Beijing wearing masks to cope with that city’s notorious pollution? Well, Mumbai is now more polluted than Beijing.

If you must know the dirty details, the level of particulate matter (PM 2.5)—a deadly pollutant that can get into lungs and cause serious health problems—was 58.6 micrograms per cubic metre. The World Health Organisation prescribes a maximum of 10 mpcm, so we are almost six times the recommended limit.

What causes this PM 2.5 to hang around our metropolis, waiting for a chance to jump into our lungs? The major culprit is construction dust. The villain here is the forever-under- construction Metro rail network. Since we have been told that it will be complete in December 2021, I take that as another five years (no, my arithmetic is not weak). Construction dust also comes from another source, the tall towers hurtling upwards into the sky all over the city. No one can understand their hurry, because no one seems to be in a rush to occupy them.

As this column has pointed out, time and again, the BJP-Sena government is the most-builder friendly administration ever. We can guess why Devendra Fadnavis’ motto is Olympian: Citius, Altius, Fortunius (Latin for Faster, Higher, Richer). The question is this: if no one wants to buy the apartments, who are developers building them for? And, how does it benefit them to build more and more empty houses? Has the CM promised them some future pie-in-the sky?

More pollutants come from vehicle fumes. Mumbai adds 821 new vehicles every day. Once upon a time that would have been called progress, but now it’s called traffic jams. Shiny new apartments and shiny new cars, all with nowhere to go. Excuse me for a minute, while I choke.