Bursting at the seams, India’s financial capital struggles to reinvent itself

Bursting at the seams, India’s financial capital struggles to reinvent itself

It is crunch time for Mumbai. At stake is not just the city’s survival, but its reputation for resilience in the face of odds. Numerous committees and reports later, the city is yet to come up with a workable blueprint for the future.

Estimates for its rejuvenation and transformation vary anywhere between Rs50,000 crore and Rs1 trillion. The state government has drawn up an ambitious plan that looks at putting in place new infrastructure for roads, railway tracks, drainage, sewage disposal and solid waste management. One reason for the single-minded focus on infrastructure is the way the city has grown historically—without a plan in place.

As Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrotra write in the introduction to their seminal volume on the city’s history, Bombay: The Cities Within (published by Eminence Designs Pvt. Ltd), “Bombay was not a planned city… every step of its growth was impulsive and incremental… (It expressed) the needs and lifestyles of the people who occupied these areas."

If the state government’s plans come through, it will be the first major development project since independence.

A metro without a metro

Even the suburban railways that are the city’s lifeline—ferrying 46% of the city’s population daily—have not seen the required investment. It is only in the last few years that an investment plan of Rs4,500 crore has been drawn up for improving track capacity, acquiring a new signalling system and coaches under the Mumbai?Urban?Transport Plan.

The municipal corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), which administers the city with around Rs9,000 crore budget (as of 2006-07), claims that it does not have enough to invest in roads, schools, hospitals and housing for the poor. As a result, the cost of living in the city has shot up with private service providers stepping in to fill the gap. Chronic electricity and water shortage is just around the corner, with the administration barely managing to avert power and water supply cuts every summer when demand peaks.

However, some of that could change as the country’s richest municipality unveiled a budget of Rs12,000 crore for the current fiscal year with an emphasis on infrastructure spending. Much of the increased spending this year will be on building roads (Rs600 crore), and water supply management and drainage (Rs1,966 crore). It has also set aside Rs570 crore for replacing the 100-year-old storm water drainage system. The inadequate drainage system, combined with indiscriminate building and diversion of natural drainage systems, such as the Mithi river, have been leading to severe flooding every year in the monsoon, and in 2005 saw the city completely marooned for two days.

The city’s planning body, the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority, is also planning several projects, including the three-phase Mumbai metro project that will link areas of the city that are now connected only by roads—the 11km, Rs2,360 crore elevated railroad being built by Reliance Energy Ltd, the 20km metro route between Mahim and Kandivli, and the planned link between Bandra and Mankhurd. The Middle Vaitarna project, which will supply 455 million litres of water daily to the city from 2012, is the first major water project sanctioned by the state government since independence. The funding of Rs1,326 crore for the project will come from the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission.

A growing population and shrinking infrastructure have changed life in the city, and even impacted the way business is conducted. Says Prabal Banerjee, chief financial officer, Hinduja Group, “Given that it is so difficult to move around the city in peak hours, most business meetings within the city today are conducted on video conference. Or, they are scheduled after office hours so that one does not get caught in traffic."

Obviously, the proposed projects are not enough. Says Sharada Dwivedi, city historian and civic activist, “What the city needs and what we are not doing is advance planning. Planning that incorporates the city’s projected needs for the next 20-50 years while preserving the essence of the city’s physical characteristics and heritage." Dwivedi is a member of several state government-appointed committees on civic issues such as the Heritage Committee, as well as the Citizen’s Action Group.

Builders’ lobby

It is easy to see why the city could go into a decline—a drive from the airport to the business district of Nariman Point exposes one to the squalor of the city’s slums, the severe traffic congestions caused by the ever-increasing number of private vehicles, and the attendant smog. The 23km drive could take anywhere between 20 minutes past-midnight, to two-and-a-half hours in peak traffic. While the number of cars in the city is growing at 20% annually, the roads are growing at 2%!

But the state government, which has a big say in where the money is spent in the city (about 70% of MCGM’s revenues go towards meeting its huge salary bill), does not seem serious about improving infrastructure, says Dwivedi. “The only plans that are approved are those that benefit the city’s builders," says Dwivedi. One example she cites is the Dharavi revamp plan, which has drawn rave reviews. “The plan will only benefit the builders by releasing huge amounts of land, but the people who live in the area have not been consulted."

Dwivedi’s sentiments are echoed by Jochin Arputham, president of the National Federation of Slum Dwellers and Magsaysay Award winning activist who has been organizing the Dharavi residents. “Not even a basic socio-economic survey of the area has been carried out. And of course, there has been no dialogue with the slum dwellers. The way this plan has been drawn up, nearly 40% of the slum dwellers will not be rehabilitated, resulting in further slums that will benefit more builders in the bargain," says Arputham.

Nor are development plans open to public scrutiny, and citizens don’t get a say in what is being planned for them, says Dwivedi. “Compare this with the way in which the British involved the citizens when they planned the rejuvenation of the inner-city areas after the 1896 plague. The plan was put up for public inspection and several communities came forward with their suggestions. The Muslims, for instance, objected to the suggested design of the chawls (old-fashioned clusters of community housing) saying that the inter-connected back entrances (in the old houses) helped their women folk, who lived in purdah, to visit each other. The Hindu community elders too came forward to back the suggestion. This kind of public debate on civic issues is entirely lacking in our present planning process," says Dwivedi.

The city’s population is expected to increase to 40 million by 2050. Without additional land coming into the market, the prices of housing, crucial for growth and development, are unlikely to come down, says Ajit Ranade, chief economist of the Aditya Birla Group. With the state owned Maharashtra Housing and Development Authority building only a handful of houses each year for middle-income households, majority of the city’s poor (around 60%) end up living in slums. The other option for people with a lower income is to live in far-off suburbs such as Vasai-Virar (once the seat of Portuguese government in western India) or Navi Mumbai, Kalyan and Dombivli. This could mean travelling to work in the city could take up to two hours each way. Nearly 50% of Mumbai’s population lives in these far-flung suburbs and uses local trains to commute.

One suggestion people have is to scrap the Urban Land Ceiling Act. It was supposed to have been scrapped in June, but has been put off once more. As a result, housing prices have gone up in the city over the last six weeks as the supply constraint is expected to continue. Repealing the Act will release 30,000 additional acres into the market. Most of this land is held by trusts owned by families such as the Wadias of Bombay Dyeing and the government is yet to acquire the land, despite notifications dating back 30 years.

The solution

Says Ranade, “What we need is to evolve a radically new paradigm for managing the mega cities of South Asia." Adds Anuj Puri, chairman of real estate consulting firm Jones Lang LaSalle Meghraj, “One solution for Mumbai could be a twin city with seamless connectivity to the main city. Perhaps we can plan one around the Reliance SEZ (special economic zone)." Reliance Industries Ltd has received permission to build two SEZs on the outskirts of Navi Mumbai totalling 35,000 acres, the second largest after Shenzen in China, which is 65,000 acres.

Both Puri and Dwivedi agree that it is a futuristic transport system that will save Mumbai. “The planned trans-harbour link (between Nhava Sheva on the mainland and Sewri in Mumbai) could serve as a link to begin with. The main reason that Navi Mumbai to take off was the lack of connectivity to Mumbai city," says Puri. The Navi Mumbai project was planned by architect Charles Correa in the 1960s. But the plan, which depended on the state government moving to the new city to decongest the old city, failed as the state government refused to move its main offices out. Today, Navi Mumbai has emerged as one of the busiest destinations for homebuyers on lower budgets.

Dwivedi points out that even far smaller and poorer cities like Bogota in Columbia, South America, have planned ahead on transportation, laying roads in areas the city is expected to expand. “Bogota has laid 80km of cycle tracks along roads where slums are expected to come up in the next few years. Most cities are planned around their transportation infrastructure. Take London for instance—it has imposed a congestion tax for people entering the city, which goes towards improving the city’s infrastructure. That is what we should do in Mumbai," says Dwivedi. Adds Ranade: “We are already paying a tax for being in Mumbai—look at the way people schedule meetings—early or late to escape the peak hour congestion. It is only a matter of time before the city monetizes it."