A few months after coming to power in May 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had made an uncharacteristically bombastic promise to the people of Mumbai, the country’s financial and entertainment capital.
Such would be the transformation of Mumbai’s abject municipal conditions, Singh had then vowed, that people “should forget talking about Shanghai.”
That, to put it mildly, hasn’t happened.
Together with power generation, urban-renewal projects have been among the slowest infrastructure investments to take off in India. And they are also the ones that are most needed.
To be sure, Singh launched a massive government programme — the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission — in December 2005. However, rather than seeking to gain experience by first fixing three or four cities most critical to the economy, the government took on a target of 63 centres.
Progress so far has been scanty, though not for any lack of paper-pushing. The federal government has blamed states for not acting quickly to access the funds earmarked for the project.
States, on their part, have accused the Union government of setting irrational conditions and of adopting a highhanded attitude.
Meanwhile, a blueprint for attracting private investors into municipal projects — one that would safeguard their investments from expropriation by local politicians — remains absent.
Mumbai is a glaring example of the tardy pace at which improvements are being introduced. Based on a “visioning exercise,” the civic authorities of Mumbai have identified 27 projects — from drainage and slum redevelopment to city beatification — that must be “taken up on a priority basis.”
Almost half of these projects, involving a capital outlay of $8 billion, should either have finished by now or be getting ready to be wrapped up by next year.
Deadlines have come and gone, but the suffering of the 12 million people living in the Greater Mumbai municipal area shows no sign of ending.
Carry a hammer
Proof of that came on 1 July when heavy overnight rains flooded streets and railway tracks, and the authorities advised drivers to carry hammers in case they needed to break open their car windows and swim to safety.
Three years ago, 17 people had suffocated to death in Mumbai, trapped in their vehicles.
At that time, it was agreed that the only way to avoid a repeat of the landslides and floods, which altogether killed more than 400 people, was to quickly rebuild the city’s decrepit storm-water drainage system.
A laudable objective; yet, the project will most certainly miss its 2009 deadline.
Among other hurdles, squatters have encroached upon parts of the municipal drainage network and converted the land into houses and offices; the authorities are trying to get them to move to alternative accommodation, but many are refusing to budge. And this is the fate of just one project.
Work is yet to begin on a 22km bridge, which will join Mumbai with the island of Nhava, which has the country’s busiest container port; this project was initially proposed in 1970. A $2 billion plan to redevelop the shanty town of Dharavi—with free housing for slum dwellers— has also been delayed time and again.
It isn’t correct to say that nothing new is being built in Mumbai. But what’s being constructed now should have been in place a decade ago. After a five-year delay, the cable-supported Bandra-Worli sea link will finally be ready by early 2009. It will join the island city with the western suburbs and hopefully ease nightmarish traffic bottlenecks at the existing causeway.
Mumbai city’s development plan envisages capital expenditure of about Rs6,500 crore in the years from 2007 through 2012. As much as 35% of this amount will be funded by the Union government; an additional 15% will come from the state government of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital.
That leaves the municipality’s share of capital expenditure at about Rs3,200 crore, according to Fitch Ratings.
Even if one assumes that the actual requirement will be higher at, say, Rs5,000 crore, there’s very little reason why Mumbai can’t raise that money. The civic authority has an annual revenue surplus of about Rs1,100 crore and “strong cash balances,” according to Fitch.
The city has been starved of investments in public amenities for so long that billions of dollars will be needed in a very short time to make it livable again: Not just for the rich businessmen, film actors and bankers, but also for the middle class and the poor.
Respond to this column at email@example.com