Mum­bai is hostage to a nexus of de­vel­op­ers, bu­reau­crats and politi­cians. For the com­mon man, it’s a life on the mar­gins.

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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.




Naresh The au­thor is a fel­low at New York Univer­sity. He is work­ing on a book on Mum­bai.

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