CITY OF SLUMS, LAND OF SCAMS
Mumbai is hostage to a nexus of developers, bureaucrats and politicians. For the common man, it’s a life on the margins.
As motorists zip off the Bandra- Worli Sea Link, they are greeted by a signboard announcing “South Mumbai”. The arrow on it actually points north. Vehicles must drive the wrong way for about 150 metres before taking a U- turn at a traffic circle that sets them back in the direction they need to be heading. Since it was opened in 2009, Mumbai residents of a certain class and disposition have come to celebrate the bridge as a symbol of their city’s possibilities. As it turns out, the sea link is a more literal metaphor for Mumbai than they realise.
The bridge cost five times more than estimated and took 10 years to build— five years longer than anticipated. But it isn’t just the awkward engineering, inordinate delays and financial inefficiency that make this bridge a reliable indicator of the foolhardy path the city authorities have chosen. Of the 12.5 million people who live in Mumbai, 7.2 million take the overburdened local train each day. Only 40,000 vehicles use the sea link every work day. Privileging infrastructure for private vehicles over public transport is both flawed urban policy and undemocratic politics.
Despite the enthusiasm affluent Mumbaikars express for the bridge, they refuse to put their money where their mouths are. When the sea link opened, the traffic was so thin that the authorities were forced to reduce the toll. Unmindful of this, the authorities are still planning to extend the sea link to Nariman Point, the city’s southern tip.
Though the signage at the Bandra end of the bridge is more accurate, the neighbourhood’s socio- economic indicators don’t offer much cause for cheer. While one survey suggests that approximately 40 per cent of households in four clusters in the area have incomes of more than Rs 1 million, an astonishing 78 per cent of the residents of the H ( West) municipal ward, of which Bandra is a part, live in slums. Mumbai defenders often point out that all great cities are characterised by extremes of experience. But extremities are, by definition, the most intense ends of the spectrum. According to the 2001 Census, 54 per cent of Mumbai residents live in slums. In India’s commercial capital, a life on the margins is actually the predominant condition.
It wasn’t always like this. For much of the last century, Mumbai was the city that loomed largest in India’s imagination. For decades, the city’s population growth was driven by a flood of migrants who came mainly from other parts of Maharashtra, and also from across India. In the rhetoric of myth makers, migrants flocked to Mumbai to get rich. In reality, they were more pragmatic; they were seeking steady work in one of the city’s many factories or enterprises associated with them. In 1951, the organised sector provided jobs for 72 per
cent of Mumbai’s workers. This began to change dramatically with liberalisation: Formal sector employment declined by 0.83 per cent between 1981 and 2007. As a result, the stream of migration— a sound marker of a city’s attractiveness— has dwindled. Natural increase has become the largest factor in Mumbai’s growth.
The informal sector now accounts for two- thirds of the city’s jobs. The compulsions of ‘ labour flexibility’ that accompanied liberalisation resulted in a massive expansion in subcontracting, contract jobs and casual employment. This informalisation in the sphere of work has imprinted itself on the city’s physical landscape. Mumbai is the embodiment in steel and curtain glass, blue tarpaulin and corrugated metal, of the inequalities of neoliberalism.
Contributing to Mumbai’s woes has been a mind- boggling level of corruption in deals relating to the city’s scarcest resource: Land. The permit raj of the last two decades has encouraged the formation of alliances between politicians who make the rules, bureaucrats who implement them and real estate developers seeking to bend them. Only occasionally do they get exposed, as in the case of the Adarsh apartment complex in Colaba. The building was sanctioned for “the welfare of serving and re- tired personnel of the defence services” but the families of several politicians and bureaucrats also obtained apartments, allegedly at prices that were below the market rate. The scandal has already forced one chief minister out of office, placed two others under investigation, and resulted in the arrests of three IAS officers: Jairaj Pathak, a former municipal commissioner, Ramanand Tiwari, a former urban development secretary, and Pradeep Vyas, a former district collector who was in charge of the city’s land records.
But many other similar violations have failed to capture the attention of investigating agencies or the public. Among these are several construction projects proceeding under the city’s Slum Rehabilitation Scheme, which offers developers generous incentives for building free homes to slum dwellers. However, the intended beneficiaries of many projects have complained that their consent letters have been forged, that developers have been granted rights over large plots on which slums occupy only a tiny portion, and that developers have inflated the number of slum dwellers on several plots in order to build more units than they’re entitled to.
Last year, Medha Patkar, the leader of the National Alliance of People’s Movements, went on a
fast to draw attention to alleged violations in a slum rehabilitation project in Golibar, a 140- acre stretch of slum in Khar East. She withdrew her strike after the state government agreed to appoint two committees to investigate her charges, but the chief minister disbanded the panels only a few weeks later. When the Slum Rehabilitation Authority ( SRA) was passed in 1995, the Maharashtra government estimated that around eight lakh tenements would have to be built. This April, more than a decade and a half later, the Comptroller and Auditor General reported that only 1.27 lakh units had actually been constructed, even as the number of slum dwellers had grown enormously. Besides, even slum dwellers’ organisations have emphasised that the idea of providing free homes to more than half the city’s population is bad economics, which has completely distorted Mumbai’s property market. Clearly,
the scheme doesn’t seem to be working for anyone— except for the developers, bureaucrats and politicians who allow it to continue. The SRA, it’s obvious, is an efficient mechanism for transferring public land into private hands. Along with the land acquisition strategies for Special Economic Zones and mining projects, social scientists have begun to describe the SRA as another example of “capital accumulation by dispossession”.
Mumbai’s problems would seem to be so gargantuan as to be unique. But another subcontinental city faces challenges that are just as intense. Like Mumbai, Karachi is a city by the sea that has been overwhelmed by migration and urban sprawl. While the jhopadpattis of Mumbai’s Dharavi neighbourhood are thought to form the second- largest slum in Asia, the katchi abadis of Karachi’s Orangi are even more numerous. The two mega- cities even share a political undercurrent: Some Maharashtrians are as uneasy about the cultural distinctiveness of multiethnic Mumbai as Sindhis are with the migrant- filled city on the edge of their province.
Though beleaguered Karachi may not seem like an obvious place to look for solutions, the Sindh Local Bodies Ordinance it adopted in 2001 presents an approach Mumbai could adopt if it wants to decentralise decision- making about urban issues. As a result of the ordinance, Karachi was divided into 18 towns and 178 union councils, headed by a nazim ( mayor) and naib nazim ( deputy mayor). Until the system was abandoned last year because the provincial government felt threatened by it, these elected bodies took city planning, financial management and project execution to the grassroots. Now that, it seems, would be a step in the right direction.
The author is a fellow at New York University. He is working on a book on Mumbai.
( LEFT) COMMUTERS ON ALOCAL TRAIN; DEVOTEES AT THE GANESHA FESTIVAL, IN MUMBAI