Mumbai: A City for the rich and their Cars

There is no space for the poor but enough and more for new golf clubs, luxury gated communities and an ultrachic mall sprawling over 17 acres

Mumbai: A City for the rich and their Cars

Vidyadhar Date

The poor are often blamed for straining Mumbai’s infrastructure, and littering and dirtying the city when, in fact, the city’s rich hog most of its land, grab more and more of it from the poor, and choke the roads and pollute the city air with their cars. I say this with the certainty of a journalist who has lived in this metropolis for the past fifty years.

Mumbai is now becoming an automobile slum—this is no exaggeration. Abandoned, broken down, dirt-laden cars on roads are disfiguring the city. I see this sight daily on upscale Manuel Gonsalves Road in Bandra, for example. An abandoned car is covered with a dirty cloth and bricks are put on it so that it does not get blown away, the same sight as we see on top of shanties.

The owner lives in an adjoining building, other citizens don’t complain and this in a locality where the citizens committee is supposed to be active. When offenders belong to the same upper class, no one raises an objection. Cars parked free on the road also provide a shelter for peeing and worse on the roadside, adding to the slum effect.

Also responsible for the mess are the city and state administrations, politicians, civil society and architects. How can Mumbai be inclusive when its guardian minister, Mangal Prabhat Lodha, is a big builder known for building gated communities for the wealthy?

I saw one of his constructions in the former cotton mill district with a number of swimming pools over a large area, one of them reserved for whites only. Yes, you read that right—for whites only, in independent India! I have seen the rise of this hefty, meek-looking gentleman, from the smalltime builder he was 30 years ago. Today, even the middle class cannot afford the housing he provides.

For the common man, slums are hardly visible during day-to-day activities. Gone are the days when the road to the airport was lined with the poor squatting in the morning in the absence of public toilets. Shanties are an eyesore for the rich living in their high-rises. So, the administration demolishes the slums, uses the land mainly for luxury housing and gives a portion to the poor with poor facilities.

Land in Mumbai, we keep hearing, is scarce—but this is a myth. Yes, it is scarce but only for ordinary people. For the rich, it is growing every day. A huge mall of no less than 17 acres has recently opened in the Bandra-Kurla complex—fancier than any other in the city and unabashedly decadent too. Ironically, it is bang opposite the headquarters of the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) and is an ugly structure whose ramp for cars disrupts the pedestrian pavement like almost all luxury buildings proliferating in the city at a furious pace. Pedestrians, who by far constitute the majority, face daily humiliation in the city, which panders to its rich and privileges their cars—rather than these people—in their civic plans.

A recent example of how the authorities work against public interest: the Mumbai Cricket Association is filthy rich but dues of Rs 14 crore owed by the MCA to Mumbai Police for bandobast were written off recently by the government even as Sharad Pawar of the NCP and Ashish Shelar, city president of the BJP, colluded in the election of the MCA president. Then the urban development department in Mantralaya has asked the municipal corporation to de-reserve 10,000 square metres of prime land in Chembur for private use. What private use? A golf club!

Sports grounds and public spaces, even those belonging to schools, are being privatised in a big way, denying access to the poor to even watch the rich playing inside. This is no way to promote sports. Hundreds of acres of land which could have been used for public purposes have been gifted to vested interests through a massive de-reservation process begun in 1989 and wrong policies in the wake of massive industrial closures including land of textile mills.

The city corporation is abetting flooding with its wrong policies. It is concretising municipal parks, destroying greenery, preventing water absorption in the soil, creating heat islands, not enforcing rain harvesting regulations. The contract system and privatisation have proved a miserable failure. Crores are spent for the benefit of contractors but workers are not paid wages for months.

The right of common people living in the city, to be involved in decision making is recognised by the United Nations but people are being increasingly marginalised and humiliated in Mumbai. Charles Correa, one of our finest architects and thinkers, put it very well in his introduction to architect Kamu Iyer’s book, Bombay from Precincts to Sprawl (2014). He said policies have led to criminally wretched and dehumanising conditions for the have-nots in the city. Also why a chapter in Iyer’s book is titled: ‘You can judge a city by the way it treats the poor’. In his own gentle critique of our city’s development, Iyer delivers a lethal punch that takes your breath away, Correa said.

Incidentally, it was at a ceremony to confer the gold medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in London in 1984 that Prince Charles, now the King, made a scathing attack on the new architecture of concrete and glass slabs that triggered a national debate and is so relevant to Mumbai today.

Many new luxury buildings of glass-andsteel coming up in Mumbai are extremely ugly. You see nothing but blank walls or high rise car parks as you walk on the street feeling totally alienated. What a sharp contrast to the lovely bungalows in Bandra which make morning walks such a pleasure for me.

New Bombay, or Navi Mumbai, designed by Correa, Shirish Patel and others is some solace. There is a lot of greenery and the bus stations are good with clean toilets, a rarity in Mumbai. St Xavier’s College students a while ago did a survey of the terrible toilets in the city. There is no reason why students, especially those of architecture colleges, cannot be roped in to create a good database of basic amenities.

Many of the rich in Mumbai enjoy huge subsidies to live in luxury flats in big buildings on land leased by the government at ridiculously low rents. Some of the richest in tony areas like Cumballa Hill and Marine Drive or Churchgate do not even want to pay for parking in public areas. Unmindful of the fact that they are a public nuisance. Nor do the rich want to pay for parking in high-rise parking lots built by the municipal corporation at great cost to the exchequer or after giving big incentives to builders.

Mumbai was a lovely city. The first major book detailing the life of the city was written in Marathi by Govind Narayan Madgavkar, way back in 1863. History scholar N.R. Phatak says in the introduction that the book was written when writing on city life was rare even in the West. It was called Mumbaiche Varnan (a description of Mumbai). It has been recently translated into English by Murli Rangnathan with a foreword by Gyan Prakash.

On the heels of Madgavkar’s title in Marathi came books on the city in Gujarati, which again use the word Mumbai. Some people love the name Bombay, but the word Mumbai is very old, and it long predates the Shiv Sena agitation to change the name from Bombay to Mumbai.

The name Mumbai should not be confused with political chauvinism. It was always Bombay in English, ‘Bumbai’ in Hindi, ‘Mumbai’ in Marathi and Gujarati and ‘Baambai’ in Tamil—the main spoken languages of the city for many years after Independence.

Under the British and many years after that too, Bombay was an international city that cared for its poor as much as its rich. The massive reconstruction undertaken during the 1897 plague, to improve water and sewage pipelines to crowded areas like Mohammad Ali Road and Princess Street— still the lifeline of drainage systems in these areas—are ample proof. They also built middle class and lower middle class housing in the suburbs to decongest. Bandra was one such suburb that had wide open roads and other spaces and sunlight filtering into homes.

Today the rich are the ones who have encroached and taken over all the spaces again. But who cares?

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