Originally published as Mumbai Vision 2010: Reporting the Future in TimeOut Mumbai, 19 November to 2 December 2004.
If you look left while crossing Haji Ali into Worli, the brightly-lit ground floor showroom of a well-known auto major is emblazoned with the words “Improving the Quality of Life”. You can’t miss it, because this is a congested junction, with cars queueing up at the next signal to ascend the Worli Fly-Over. Stuck in the gridlock, you’re forced to ponder the shiny cars and hopeful slogan, and try and forget the honking horns, choking exhaust fumes, and street kids trying to sell you fashion magazines, before the signal changes.
Surely the guys at McKinsey and Bombay First, who must also get stuck in traffic jams, would appreciate the irony. Their recent report on making the city “world-class” and yes, improving its “quality of life” has just joined the long queue of studies, reports, and consultancies on the city’s ascent to becoming a global city. Recent changes at the state and centre have shown the government is increasingly keen to step in and clear the traffic on the road to Mumbai 2010. Plans and strategies that piled up for decades are beginning to move, and the authorities are trying to play traffic cop between contending visions of the city’s future.
While McKinsey is a recent entrant into the global game of urban brand-building, city architects and planners are its most usual suspects. For the past several years, the media and corporate world in Mumbai have been arguing over the “death of the city”. There seems to be neither enough money nor political will to tackle the monstrous problems of housing, transport, infrastructure, and the city’s slipping position in the global economy. Visions of Mumbai have been stuck between the apathy of our elected representatives — the politicians — and the elitism of our un-elected representatives — the NGOs.
While there’s no sign that state politicians have stopped milking the city’s wealth, or self-proclaimed “citizens’ groups” have ceased approaching the courts to solve the problems in their backyards, the past few years have seen hopeful changes. During this time, a handful of professional architects have stood between bickering politicians and anxious residents, crafting their visions of urban renewal through shifting alliances with diverse clientele — from social movements and NGOs to the cocktail circuit and the corporate world (or as Hafeez Contractor puts it, “everyone from god-men to con-men”).
Architects are a unique breed of image makers and public intellectuals. Today styling themselves as “urban designers”, they market visions of turning Mumbai into Shanghai, London, or Gotham City with a few broad strokes. Often treating the city as a blank canvas, their visions frequently resemble science fiction fantasy or picture postcard nostalgia, and are a genre of story-telling which goes back several generations. The late Mulk Raj Anand founded the magazine Marg with a bold vision of a twin city across the harbour — likening urban planning to dreaming, and intoning that “in dreams lie responsibility”. Forty years later, with the city still mostly growing northwards into Gujarat, rather than eastwards into Maharashtra, architects are still dreaming more than planning.
Two of the largest land-holders in the city — the central government-owned Port Trust and National Textile Corporation — regard the recent initiatives by architects to redevelop their Dock Lands and Mill Lands as a lot of wishful thinking. Similarly, heritage enthusiasts have consistently failed to devise realistic financial strategies for building conservation, but are the first to protest when a picturesque bungalow faces demolition. To be fair, this is not the fault of the architects — the functioning of the city’s land, housing and employment markets reveals the limits of their vision-making. Beautifully designed buildings and public spaces are good for real estate values, but the same property market excludes the majority of the city’s population from access to affordable housing and secure tenure.
A higher quality of life requires more than just beautification of parks and monuments, and a smooth drive to the international airport — what McKinsey calls “quick wins”. Serious plans for improving the supply of credit, generating employment, and reforming local institutions are relegated to the footnotes of their Vision Mumbai, and most other vision statements. The roots of our civic malaise lies not in the inevitable decline and death of the city, but in our inability to understand and manage its relentless expansion. While planners and architects have a role to play in the ongoing debate on the city’s growth, a more comprehensive and accountable public vision is required to clear the traffic jam towards Mumbai 2010. You cannot cut the queue to the departure lounge.
Bombay is the birthplace of civic sensibility in India. So here are some sensible suggestions for really improving the quality of life of those who don’t fly business class:
PUBLIC SPACE: Space No Bar
The tallest tale about Mumbai is that the city is over-congested and space in short supply. This myth of land scarcity is used to justify everything from demolishing stalls and hutments to dereserving forests and mangrove areas. An oft-cited statistic claims that the ratio of open space to population should be four acres per 1000 persons in Mumbai, whereas there is actually only .03 acres per 1000. Don’t believe the hype — this figure doesn’t take into account the concentration of vacant lands with a handful of large owners in the city and suburbs. If the protectors of public space looked beyond their gated communities, they would see that more than two thousand acres of land is lying idle or vacant in the Dock and Mill Lands, or is tied up with private trusts, state corporations, and defunct industries in the suburbs. Enterprising encroachers and man-eating leopards are not to blame for your lack of breathing room. They are the victims of Mumbai’s monstrous spatial inequalities. Another popular statistic points out that 60% of the population occupies only about 6% of the city’s total land.
There is enough surface area in the city to give ample open spaces to everyone, rich and poor. The real problem is one of distributing this recyclable resource more equitably. But we so far have only seen narrow solutions to this city-wide problem. The challenge for planners and citizens is to come up with creative design solutions to high densities. Increasing awareness of the city’s geography and land-use patterns shows that public space is not just a local problem to be solved by creating landscaped islands surrounded by fences and private security guards.
HOUSING and DEVELOPMENT RIGHTS: Slumming it Out
Do you know how much FSI or TDR obtains on your plot? Chances are that some local builder does, and is about to descend on your society to make you an offer you can’t refuse. The city’s construction industry makes super-profits from speculating in development rights, manipulating building permissions, using shoddy materials and employing bonded labour.
When in 2002 the Congress-NCP Government appointed S.S. Tinaikar to inquire into the functioning of state housing schemes, his report was subseqently suppressed, as it decried the Slum Rehabilitation Authority — “of the builders, by the builders, and for the builders”. Yet strangely, everyone from McKinsey and Bombay First, to city politicians, NGOs and architects, have embraced the SRA. This ostensibly pro-people mechanism rewards builders who undertake slum redevelopment with enhanced market value in an already overpriced housing market. The result is plain to see. Spaceship-like towers have sprouted in congested inner-city neighbourhoods, sucking dry local water supplies and gobbling up parking spaces. Former slum areas are becoming upmarket destinations, driving up local prices, and pushing out their former residents. Don’t expect the city visionaries to do much about this — social workers and housing rights activists in Mumbai have even set up their own construction firms to exploit the surplus development rights granted to slum housing projects. While there are no easy solutions to the housing crisis, enhancing access to credit and ensuring security of tenure, decentralising the building process, and introducing greater regulation and transparency into the construction industry are a few ways to tackle the nightmare of Slumbai.
Builders lord over the city in the same way that Bill Gates dominates your computer desktop — restricting your choices through monopoly and muscle power. And slum dwellers relate to the city like the hackers to the Internet — through decentralised networks based on common resources and mutual survival. We have a lot to learn from their visions of Mumbai. So go open source, and take back your development rights — form a society, hire an architect and engineer, get bank finance, and pocket the riches that the builders are skimming from our skyline.
TRANSPORT: The Real Speed Breakers
When left-leaning Ken Livingstone was elected as London’s Mayor a few years ago, he beefed up the city bus fleet by 35%, and introduced a steep “congestion tax” on private vehicles entering the central city at stipulated hours, reducing traffic dramatically and forcing people to use public transport. Cameras in the city trace the offending vehicles, and the tax is automatically charged to car owners through a smart card system, which you periodically top up, like prepaid mobile phone cards. Ironically, this entire technology was devised by software and hardware developers in Mumbai â€” but our own authorities seem to have outsourced their responsibilities for traffic management to bridge builders and car companies. In the late nineties, the Sena-BJP Government went on a spree of fly-over construction, lining our highways (and their pockets) with signs of largesse, and leaving 85% of the city’s commuters, who take the trains, untouched by their Shivshahi.
Plans for investment and upgradation of the city’s suburban railway system have languished for decades, turning rush hour into crush hour. Help is now on the way. The MUTP II (Mumbai Urban Transport Project) — jointly financed by the World Bank with the central and state governments — was finally sanctioned by the Vajpayee last year, after more than a decade of foot-dragging on various loan conditions, such as resettlment of slum-dwellers evicted from the railway lands, and creation of a new agency for unified management of the city’s railways, the MRVC (Mumbai Railway Vikas Corporation). Under MUTP, new lines are augmenting the busiest railway corridors, frequency and capacity of trains is being increased, and signalling systems are being streamlined.
Not to be outdone, the state government has introduced the parallel MUIP (Mumbai Urban Infrastructure Project), again for constructing more roads, though this time focussing on essential east-west links, widening and concretising of existing arterial roads and, thankfully, construction of pedestrian facilities like footpaths, subways, and over-bridges. These two packages together promise significant improvements in your everyday life on the move in Mumbai, but are not enough. The citizens’ movement needs to get on a suburban train and demand better treatment for the majority of commuters and pedestrians, who are easy prey for the biggest predators in our urban jungle — noisy, polluting, and wasteful private vehicles.