Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mumbai votes for infrastructure and a liberal culture

As Mumbai votes today to decide who will rule the BMC – supposedly the richest municipality in the country – for the next five year, there are two main questions that cross my mind when I think of what Mumbaiites really want from their municipality. Infrastructure….and a liberal culture. Over the last twenty years, both have been attacked and both have suffered; consumed by the parochial and rural instincts of its rulers.

Mumbai has been aptly called Maximum City. When Suketu Mehta used that term, he used it positively – to show the city’s professionalism, the ambition of its people, and the penchant its people had to live it up. Today, the word maximum means something else. Mumbai’s become a city with maximum potholes on the road; maximum trashy housing; maximum number of slum-dwellers; maximum number of traffic snarls……and so on. It’s not like the city was always like that. I remember when I moved to this city twelve years back, the distance from Bandra to CST (erst-while VT) used to take about 50 minutes. Ten years later (a couple of years back), it took the same time to travel from Bandra to Lower Parel, a distance roughtly half of Bandra-CST. This is the story that everyone suffers in Mumbai. Those who travel by trains haven’t seen time delays, but the “crushing” they experience in trains has pretty much doubled. There have been small reliefs available and that too to only to a few. For someone like me, the Bandra-Worli Sea Link came as a god-sent. It cut my time to Lower Parel down to 25 minutes. Likewise, the Western Railways made the rakes (compartments) bigger partially reducing the crush. The Central Railway travelers weren’t that lucky.

The two cities that Mumbai is most compared to are Delhi and Kolkata. The former for showing how Delhi has become far better in infrastructure. The latter to shock Mumbaiites into seeing where their city is headed. The decay is visible on an almost daily basis. Roads are repaired every year – no one asks the question as to why they need to be repaired every year in the first place. There is rampant corruption – and yet the same old contractors are given contracts year after year. The Maharashtra CM said in a press interview in the Indian Express a couple of days back that there is a huge racket in road projects – some contractors bid as low as 40% cheaper, thus securing the orders. As the project progresses, the costs are increased in an almost premeditated manner. The contractors and their political patrons all benefit – the city suffers.

The Shiv Sena BJP combine started off well in 1996. At that time, they were ruling in both Mumbai city and Maharashtra state. Maybe that’s why they were so effective. They were responsible for building a large number of flyovers in Mumbai. Those flyovers make the commute on the Western Express and Eastern Express highways somewhat bearable. It’s a different matter that calling these roads “express highways” is a bit of a travesty. But then, Mumbai’s entire infrastructure has become a travesty.

Mumbai needs loads of big thinking. It needs maybe $100 billion of investments in infrastructure. Its people are amongst the wealthiest in the country – and are willing to pay for the infrastructure they demand. They routinely pay Rs 75 for a 4-km ride over the Bandra-Worli sea link. They are happy to cough up Rs 130 for using the Expressway to Pune. Money is not the issue in Mumbai. The vision of its leaders is.

It’s not as if everything is bad in Mumbai. There are no power cuts; very little (compared to other cities) water cuts and the crime rate is low. The people of this city are hard-working. They are focused on making money; the Gujaratis and Sindhis defining the business culture. The office culture is the most professional in the country – the investment bankers defining its NY like efficiency. But most of all, it’s the safety the city offers to its women…..women feel safe and wear clothes that they couldn’t possible wear in any other city. The liberal culture that allows its young citizens to roam around hand-in-hand….. It’s no surprise then that Bollywood resides in this city. Mumbai’s liberal culture is its biggest virtue. It’s what makes Mumbai, Mumbai. It’s why they say that once you have lived in Mumbai, you cannot live anywhere else.

The Shiv Sena – BJP rulers in Mumbai have taken an extreme view of culturism and nationalism as always. For them, young girls and boys holding hands is anti-Indian-culture. For them, migrants who come from almost all parts of the country, but most notably from UP and Bihar, are an irritant. They forget that in every global city, migrants have contributed enormously. The CM of Maharashtra gave the example of countries (like the US and UK though he didn’t name them) where migrants have played a crucial role in development; and then there is Japan – which has been suffering as a result of its policy of not allowing migrants. Then again, the very hard-nosed “Marathi manoos” governance strategy is anachronistic. None of my Marathi friends empathize with it. Maharashtrians are proud people; they are culturally rich; and educationally sound. They don’t need such patronizing politics. Scratch a bit and the BJP’s Hindutva peeks out. None of this is right for a city that hopes to be counted alongwith Hongkong, Shanghai and indeed London and NY. The kind of nationalism that the Shiv Sena has practiced belongs to another world entirely. I know for a fact that Mumbaiites disagree with the Shiv Sena’s diktat against the Pakistani team playing cricket in the city.

Mumbaiites are culturally liberal. For ever, they have lived in hybrid clusters. Religious polarization has taken place only in the post-Babri Masjid days. The city is perhaps the only truly cosmopolitan city in the country; a virtuous pot pourri of traditions, food habits, languages and cultures. The only city that comes somewhat close to it in diversity is Bangalore. It is this diversity that has been attacked by one politician after another. It’s not as if the Congress-NCP has been very liberal either. One remembers the way RR Patil went about closing dance bars. Rather than closing them, maybe he could have cleaned the sleaze out. But for Patil, shutting down dance bars in Mumbai was a ticket to ensuring that he won some more votes in his constituency (Tasgaon) in rural Maharashtra (Sangli district).

Patil’s conduct also highlights Mumbai’s biggest challenge. The fact that it is a city within a state called Maharashtra. Too many MLAs coming from rural areas of Maharashtra decide the fate and fortune of this mega city. This has to change. The city generates much of the cash that feeds Maharashtra’s economy. Taking the city out of the state and making it a city-state like Delhi is pretty impossible. At least, let the state not starve the city off the funds it requires for all its projects. The PM on his part has promised funds for Mumbai’s growth. The CM has spoken of projects costing Rs 1 lac crores that the central government should fund. Can we just make sure that whoever rules Mumbai or Maharashtra, this part of development is taken out of the political equation?

The real truth is that the people of Mumbai are looking forward to better governance. They don’t care who comes to power. All they want is better governance. Poll forecasts indicate that there will be a change in the political set-up running the BMC. If the Congress-NCP comes to power, can it promise the people of Mumbai that it will do better? That’s the million dollar question…..

1 comment:

  1. Great piece Prashant. Mumbai badly needs good governance and needs it now. As someone who grew up in Mumbai it's sad to see the city's deterioration.
    Thought I'd go a step further - and say its not just the politicians but citizens apathy. Over the past 15 years that I've lived in Delhi/Gurgaon have seen more involved citizens participation on civic issues (one example is the Delhi govt's bhagirdari program). Witness the participation of the last Anna Hazare agitation on both cities.
    My sense is that the SoBo syndrome is spreading: cynicism towards voting; screw the surroundings as long as my home/ society is unaffected - and a general sense that we live in some of the most expensive real estate in the country - nay the world! Given the living conditions, I believe, this may not be sustainable.