Mumbai: Forever a City on the Make

Mumbai is as modern as she is ancient, the new and the old juxtaposing. Some overzealous advocates of ‘development’ have fantasised about turning her into a Shanghai, but the city has held her own

Mumbai: Forever a City on the Make

Aparna Joshi

Bombay is a diva. She has an exalted opinion of herself and carries herself imperiously. She throws tantrums too, but her glamorous aura seems to make up for it. Bombay is also a city forever on the make, somewhat like a diamond that is still being cut and polished.

From a string of scattered islands that were melded together with reclaimed land and causeways, she dazzled as a young port city four centuries ago. She had everything going for her, save the vagaries of climate and the caprices of those who sought to own and govern her. Both shaped her over hundreds of years. And continue to do. Flyovers, railway lines and bridges crisscrossed her slim frame, and the rowdy sea lapping at her shores was tamed and reclaimed slowly.

She got herself rechristened. She continues to grow vertically with ever taller buildings dotting the landscape, and sea links, coastal roads, metro rails and trans harbour links snaking across her bosom. She takes in all those who flock to her from faraway places, making them her own.

Their rising numbers mean she must get more houses, more infrastructure. Ergo, Mumbai is always a work in progress. And Mumbaikars—early inhabitants, second-generation denizens, migrants—forever live in hope… for the next project to materialise and solve all their problems. Knowing fully well that the promise is just as treacherous as the rains in the city.

Dig this infra?

From the Hornby Vellard Project in the mid-18th century, Mumbai has always been in the making. But the past 40-odd years have seen crazy ‘development’. For sure, connectivity has improved and commutes have got shorter, but when they are still being built, these flyovers, metro rails, monorails, skywalks, eastern freeway, the Sea Link et al make everyday life miserable for the Mumbaikar.

The Worli Sea Face and Marine Drive are no longer a place for citizens to enjoy a quiet walk along the shoreline. Once up and running, though, some of these projects become a thing to flaunt. The Bandra-Worli Sea Link cost the exchequer Rs 1,600 crore and was delayed several times till it opened in 2008, but is now an iconic feature of the city’s new landscape. Despite the ecological havoc it threatens to wreak, the Rs 12,721 crore coastal road project will surely be a talking point when ready.

Whose Mumbai is it, anyway?

Mumbai’s potholed roads are another story that has inspired countless memes and endless reams. With over 17 agencies tasked with Mumbai’s upkeep, keeping the city’s roads in working order should have been easier, but it isn’t. The incumbent municipal commissioner recently pledged to concretise every inch of road within three years.

The city’s common folk crib about the deterioration of the once-iconic BEST bus service. Getting to school or office in the overcrowded local trains and a depleting bus fleet is hard, to say the least. Meanwhile, the number of cars has multiplied exponentially—it’s close to 40 million—and additional road space or length cannot keep pace. Vehicle emissions also mean Mumbai is fast losing the advantage of being a coastal city in terms of air quality.

Environmental amnesia

The city’s green cover has reduced significantly over the past two decades and Mumbai has among the lowest per capita green space ratios in India. But neither that fact nor the scare the city got on 26 July 2005, when the Mithi breached its banks following a cloudburst, fazes the Mumbaikar.

Not many know that the city has four rivers—Dahisar, Mithi, Oshiwara and Poisar, which flow into the Arabian Sea through the Malad, Mahim, Marve and Thane creeks, respectively. To most citizens, these water bodies are nullahs (drains), a possible indicator of our indifference towards their slow degradation.

Over the years, Mumbai has seen longer summers and shorter winters. The 2021 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned of severe climate change for Mumbai, including warming of nearly 1 degree Celsius by the 2030s and a 3-12 per cent increase in annual rainfall.

Data from the same report suggests the possibility that sea-facing areas like Marine Drive may not exist in less than 30 years, thanks to rising sea levels.

In March 2022, the state government announced the Mumbai Climate Action Plan (MCAP), an initiative to address the city’s growing climate change threats and make recommendations on adaptation and mitigation strategies, but how that will go is anyone’s guess.

Past master

Mumbai, though, takes it all in her stride. She’s seen it all in the past 2,000 years— merchants, conquerors, monks and native fishermen have left indelible marks on her. They carved their way into the beautiful natural harbour, built shrines and caves in her verdant hillsides and raised monuments in her native Malad stone.

These temples, dargahs, sculptures and caves, scattered all over the metropolis, may excite the city’s cognoscenti but face an uncertain future. Mumbai still has the distinction of housing three UNESCO world heritage sites. It has over 175 Buddhist and Hindu caves and 11 forts built by the British and the Portuguese.

Mumbai is as modern as she is ancient, the new and the old always cheek by jowl. Some misdirected advocates of ‘development’ have even fantasised about turning her into a Shanghai, but the diva has held her own.

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