Mumbai: First it aspired to be Shanghai. Now it is going to be Wi-Fi. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis made his own contribution to Mumbai’s ever expanding language of aspiration when he told the state legislative assembly on Friday that Mumbai will be turned into a “Wi-Fi city” by May 2017 with 1,200 hotspot stations.
The other terms in the Mumbai lexicon are an ever aspiring international financial city and of late smart city. Before Fadnavis, his three predecessors from the Congress—Vilasrao Deshmukh, Ashok Chavan, and Prithviraj Chavan—also sold the same international financial city dream with little work to show. Fadnavis has publicly admitted, with regrets, that Mumbai has missed the bus to be India’s first international financial city. So he has come up with a more reasonable-sounding aspiration now—International Financial Services Centre.
Fadnavis’s Wi-Fi City announcement is part of his government’s effort to salvage Mumbai’s smart city dream after it failed to make the list of 20 cities chosen by the Narendra Modi government in the first phase of Smart City Project. Only Pune and Solapur from Maharashtra made the cut when the Smart Cities were named earlier this year. Mumbai’s absence caused a minor political embarrassment for Fadnavis. Ally Shiv Sena, which rules the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), said Delhi Sarkar had again “slighted” Mumbai though Sena had expressed strong reservations about the Smart City project when it was launched. To make up for this loss Fadnavis has proposed a few smart city initiatives for Mumbai which will be implemented by the state government in collaboration with the MCGM. Apart from Wi-Fi Mumbai this project also includes improving public transport system using technology.
Of these 500 would be ready by November this year, Fadnavis said. In the first phase of developing 500 hotspots iconic Mumbai landmarks like the Gateway of India and Girgaon Chowpatty. Apart from offering Wi-Fi to citizens, the project also aims at using the high-speed network to develop a real time information platform that would deliver updates on public transport services to people on their mobile phones. Wi-Fi network will also enable citizens and public utilities to identify parking slots in different Wi-Fi -powered locations and prevent traffic logjams.
Though Mumbai missed out on the first phase of Smart City project, the inspiration for the Wi-Fi Mumbai initiative comes from the Smart City project’s philosophy itself. One of the several guidelines for the Smart City project is helping cities identify locations where technology could be used to offer integrated public transport systems and real time updates. For instance, commuters waiting for a bus operated by Bombay Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) undertaking at one of the Wi-Fi-enabled locations would be able to track the arriving bus, a facility offered by cab aggregators, on their mobile phones.
In political terms Fadnavis has a key advantage over most of his predecessors including those who have ruled Maharashtra post-2005 when this big talk about Mumbai makeover started. Fadnavis has been an urban politician unlike most former chief ministers of Maharashtra, a state which, according to its 2015-16 economic survey, has more than 45% urban population. As the Mayor of Nagpur in the late 90s, admittedly a much smaller landscape as compared to the mass of Mumbai, Fadnavis oversaw the urban transformation of that city. The assembly constituency in Nagpur which has elected Fadnavis four times in a row is predominantly urban.
Urban planners, media, and political commentators have for decades blamed the political class that has ruled Maharashtra for their near total lack of understanding of Mumbai’s urban problems. Most Maharashtra chief ministers and ministers holding key portfolios have drawn their political power from their rural fiefdoms and have naturally, though not rightly, invested more in their pocket boroughs than in Mumbai. Their decisions and pronouncements on Mumbai have routinely demonstrated a severe deficit of urban sensibilities. For instance, the ban on hotels which had dance performances by women—imposed by the previous Congress-NCP government, cynically carried forward by the Fadnavis government but struck down by the Supreme Court—showed an extreme rural approach to urban issues.
Fadnavis, a tech-savvy politician who effectively uses social media for government announcements and responses, has brought in a refreshing personal change though there has not been a definite break from the past. Initiatives like Wi-Fi Mumbai are smart announcements that immediately get eyeballs. While they are welcome, Fadnavis will need to do much more to set this creaking Mumbai machine right.