Home >opinion >The urban tragedy in Mumbra

A building collapse on the outskirts of Mumbai last week sheds tragic light on the nature of urbanization in India.

Mumbra is a town some 50km north of Mumbai. Seventy-two people were killed there after a building had a pancake collapse, with one floor falling on the other. There are several other similar towns on the outskirts of the financial capital that have seen explosive population growth, as buying a house in the city became increasingly out of reach for a majority of citizens. Mumbra was a small village in 1980; it now has an estimated population of 900,000.

The 2011 census shows that some big cities have either experienced stagnant or declining populations within their municipal limits, with most of the population growth in metropolitan areas concentrated in far-flung towns outside city limits: gentrification of city centres accompanied by population explosions at the peripheries. The 2011 census also highlighted the rapid growth in so-called census towns, which are urban in terms of occupational profile and population density but defined as villages because they are yet to get urban governance structures. The number of census towns grew from 1,362 in 2001 to 3,894 in 2011.

Mumbra is a classic case of such habitations, miserable and chaotic. It is part of Thane district, and district officials say that nine out of every 10 buildings in towns such as Mumbra are illegal. In many towns like Mumbra that are mushrooming across the country, building activity is overseen by gram panchayat regulations that are not designed for urban habitations. Town planning norms do not exist. Local government finances are thin.

Mumbra is also a tinder box, a Muslim ghetto peopled by migrants from north India as well as those who moved out of Mumbai after the 1992 communal conflagration. This is the town of Ishrat Jahan, the young girl who was shot down by the Gujarat police in 2004 because she was allegedly part of a team sent to assassinate Narendra Modi.

Our national discourse on urbanization is often focused on the woes of the large cities, but a growing number of rural migrants, the hopeful who take the train to Mumbai, the sort described by Rahul Gandhi in his recent speech to business leaders in New Delhi, have their first experience of urban life in towns such as Mumbra that have no safe housing, public infrastructure, schools or even a grid of roads. It is time to think about these burgeoning towns as well.

What are the reasons for India’s wayward urbanization? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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