Mumbai: Broken City

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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There are no sustainable measures in sight to prevent the implosion of Mumbai

IF MOVIE STARS stay in the vicinity of Juhu beach, television actors make their home a few kilometres away nearer to Versova beach, establishing which is the poorer cousin along the coastline. For a long time, Versova was also less crowded and cleaner. Then, as the landscape of Mumbai degenerated, rubbish began to get strewn around. Groups of local residents came together for cleanliness drives. One of them became famous over the last two years because of astute use of social media to publicise their clean-up work. A few weeks ago they announced that the drive was being halted temporarily. Its organiser tweeted that he was fed up because they were ‘abused by goons for picking up garbage’, which had not been cleared because of administrative lethargy. It was the drive’s 109th week when the decision to suspend it was taken. ‘Tried my best and I failed. Forgive me my ocean and my country,’ the tweet ended, somewhat melodramatically.

The media picked it up and the system that he had accused of lethargy shook itself up. The municipality, which should have been cleaning the beach instead of letting citizens do it, sent its trucks. The drive was resumed and two weeks later, the Chief Minister himself participated. Aaditya Thackeray, the son of Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, promised to join the following week. Self-congratulatory messages went all around. A question remained—why keep going to a beach for over a 100 Sundays to clean it? The duration of the drive is an indication in itself of it essentially being nothing more than a feel-good exercise. If the beach has to be clean, then garbage shouldn’t find its way into the sea, which returns it back to the shore. Otherwise any action is like Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the hill knowing it will come down.

Rishi Aggarwal, a well-known activist in Mumbai, remembers helming a clean-up exercise at Versova beach over a decade ago between 2003 and 2006. He says, “I am preparing a map showing the catchment from which waste is getting into the nullahs. You are not giving waste management services to the slums, so they tie it into the bag and throw it into the nullah. Everyday, 5,000 to 10,000 garbage items are thrown down into the sea. How much are you going to pick up on the beach?”

Garbage that does not wind up in the sea is even a bigger problem because it eventually reaches one of the dumping grounds. Mumbai’s biggest is the Deonar one, which early last year saw a series of fires. Small fires are a fact of life there, but these were mammoth, so big that satellites could capture them in images and covered almost the entire city in smog. Mumbai generates about 6,000 tonnes of waste daily and all of it ends up in these landfills that have long gone over their capacity, leading to methane build up. “Putting waste in Deonar dumping ground is like adding oil to fire. If you pour more oil into a fire, you will get more fire,” says Aggarwal. But he also feels solid waste management is the easiest problem to solve for Mumbai. “People are making big money transporting waste to dumping grounds. Almost [Rs] 300, 400 crore goes in that kind of deals,” he says, adding that the same money can be redeployed to ensure that waste is segregated at source and recycled, having inspectors perform checks and making cleaners go door to door.

On almost every front—transport, housing, roads, waste, quality of life—Mumbai is crumbling and while there could be reasons pinpointed for each of these factors, at its heart, the meta cause is governance. “Everything is ultimately tied to how we are governed and the poor state of institutions. The decision-making framework of the city is in the grip of various vested interests,” says Aggarwal.

When India gained independence, the British left behind in Mumbai the legacy of a decent administrative framework. Indeed, that contributed to how it became the financial capital of India. Recently, in a column in The Mint, Amol Agrawal, a PhD student at IIM Bangalore who is doing his thesis on banking history, traced how Mumbai took over from Kolkata as India’s financial centre, ‘By 1918, Calcutta and Bombay controlled 43% and 40% respectively of rupee companies and 73% and 19% for sterling companies. This again showing dominance of Calcutta over Bombay, especially in sterling markets mainly due to tea companies,’ he writes. Kolkata businessmen, however, couldn’t adapt after Independence while Mumbai’s entrepreneurs found in the city a fertile soil to translate business ideas. “Mumbai moved from being a cotton textile hub to a financial hub, entertainment hub and so on. It has clearly shown its resilience so far. Compare this to Calcutta, which just could not as the British started to leave the city,” he tells Open.

Mumbai is crumbling on almost every front, from transport to housing to quality of life, and while there could be reasons pinpointed for each failure, at its heart, the meta cause is poor governance

Agrawal, who also runs an insightful blog on economics, had earlier written about an Italian urban economist Mario Polèse who had come out with a framework to rank cities according to resilience. A-resilient cities, by Polèse’s measure, easily survive big shocks to them, but B-resilient cities take time to get up again. Agrawal wrote in his blog that Mumbai was in danger of slipping from A to B because even though the city attracted people, unless infrastructure was improved it could not take things for granted. “There is no scope for complacency. Mumbai has to think a lot about infrastructure and connect the city to people. The most resilient and happening cities across the world are hardly just about metros and fancy things. They are more about history, culture, open spaces, and above all, the importance of pedestrians. It is amazing how much people walk in these cities and there is no shame at it. In India and in Mumbai, we are always thinking of taking the auto, taxi, etcetera, for wherever,” Agrawal says.

ON SEPTEMBER 29TH this year, when a stampede killed more than 20 people on a railway foot over bridge in Elphinstone Road station, it was something that seemed almost inevitable. The crowds travelling on the Mumbai suburban network have always been of legendary proportions, but even from impossible limits, it has gotten worse. Over the last decade, the number of suburban railway travellers has shot up from about 4.5 to 7.5 million daily. The carrying capacity of the trains themselves has increased only marginally. A Metro rail network is being created and for a change, the work is progressing on schedule. In about three years, it is expected to link much of the metropolis. There is also a coastal road which will serve as an alternative to the highways where traffic jams can make rides stretch on for hours at present. And yet, even all this might not be enough.

Ashok Datar, chairman of the Mumbai Environmental Social Network, believes the city is going in the opposite direction with these mega projects. He says, “Transport is all about numbers. We don’t seem to understand numbers at all. Delhi has 213 kilometres of Metro rail routes. Mumbai has only 10 km right now (the sole Metro line in operation that connects the eastern and western suburbs). At the end of eight to nine years, we will end up with 70-80 km of network. Delhi, after having 213 km network which Mumbai cannot even aspire for, has a ridership of 2.8 million commuters whereas Mumbai’s suburban railway has 7.5 million. Mumbai’s much abused bus system carries more people than Delhi Metro. We don’t seem to understand the scale. Metro is a tremendously costly animal and its use in relation to the investment is rather less. Mumbai will have more people using the Metro. Per kilometre, Mumbai has at least 50 per cent more than Delhi. Our policies are increasing the problems, not solving them. We are worse off today and we will be even more worse off after 10 years,” he says.

The solution, he believes, is to decongest the roads and encourage bus travel. But, in fact, the public bus service has seen a steep reduction in people travelling on it. He says, “Bus travel reduced from 4.2 to 2.9 million over the last ten years. Ten years back, buses and railways used to carry the same number of people. Roads are all over, where buses can go and the Metro can’t. Buses have great reach at low cost. Falling bus ridership and the corresponding rise in private vehicles, autos and taxis creates a big problem of space. When more people shift from bus to car, we increase traffic congestion. On the Western Express Highway, you now take 2.5 hours to travel instead of 45 minutes seven or eight years back. An easy solution is a Bus Rapid Transit System. It is absolutely ideal for Mumbai and we don’t even look at it. We think if we sacrifice one lane for buses, how can cars manage? It is warped thinking,” he says.

The ridership in Mumbai’s public bus system reduced from 4.2 to 2.9 million daily over the last ten years but it still carries more people than the Delhi Metro

Datar is part of a mechanism, Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority, set up by the government to coordinate the activities of different agencies that oversee the city’s transport. He has no kind words for it. “It is a completely impotent agency, people talk talk talk with no action. They fight with each other as if it is India and Pakistan. Railways and municipality, BEST and municipality. Turf wars are tremendous. Hardly anyone is working for the city. They are all working for their organisations or themselves. Complete lack of governance,” he says.

In August this year, the municipality cleared a development plan that had been drawn up for the next two decades. It would oversee the shape Mumbai would take up to 2034, at least on paper. Some of the highlights of the plan included creating 1 million affordable houses, basic amenities for slum dwellers who make up over 40 per cent of city population but are squeezed into one-tenth its space, protecting open spaces by rehabilitating those who have encroached on it, raising the Floor Space Index which will allow more construction and create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

But before this plan, there was another draft that had first been brought out two years ago and it had evoked so much agitation that the municipal commissioner at the time was said to have been removed because of it. The reason for the protests were a number of errors in the plan. Sudhir Badami, an IIT engineer turned civic activist, however feels that the earlier plan was much more forward-looking than the one recently passed. “It said that instead of a 20 year plan within the BMC, you have a permanent planning cell which will keep on collecting and collating data and a review shall be made every five years. And based on that review, modifications can be made. That was a novel way to go about planning. On the transport side, it gave cognisance to the existence of people who walk. The Comprehensive Transportation Study 2008 clearly mentions that 44 per cent of people in Mumbai walk to work. How does this happen? Assuming 40 per cent of the people live in slums, a large number of them are working in housing complexes as domestic helps. They walk to work. If you don’t look at their safety and convenience, what planning are we doing? So [the earlier DP] said that roads more than six metres wide shall be provided with 2.5 metres of footpath. But there was one very good clause there that stated that should the right of way of a road vary and it decreases, then the compromise shall be made in the carriageway and not on the footpath,” he says.

Badami agrees that there were technical glitches, like maps making errors in showing areas accurately. He had written in an article in Moneylife then: ‘…people found out to their horror that several glaring mistakes, like missing to mention two-thirds of Mumbai’s heritage structures, compromise in 4,000-acre Aarey Colony’s open space and reclamation of 160 acres of land from the sea for the 34-km coastal highway.’ But he says these were inadvertent and that the outcry happened because there is so little trust that citizens have in the BMC—every error seemed suspect as serving a vested interest. It was a reaction to a legacy of corruption.

Ramesh Nair, India CEO of the real estate services and investment management firm Jones Lang LaSalle, believes that there is no threat to Mumbai’s position as a financial hub in India, but, in a globalised world, there will be longer term competition from other international cities. He says that to become a global financial centre, Mumbai needs to model itself on existing ones like New York and Hong Kong, and for that a few things are necessary: infrastructure needs to be improved, there needs to be predictability for those who come to do business here, the talent base needs to be increased and, lastly, disaster management must be placed in focus. “The city needs to have a plan in place to make sure infrastructure initiatives get done at the earliest. Mumbai needs to create new avenues for economic activity,” he says. He thinks that the Metro and coastal road will considerably improve transportation.

Activists like Datar are not so sanguine about Mumbai’s future unless there is radical shift in the mindset of planners and citizens. He compares the number of school buses in Mumbai, 8,000, to the number of public transport buses, 4,000, half of the former. Why, he asks, have students stopped walking to school?