Home > Opinion > Bypassing Mumbai’s fabric

The night we drove along the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, now named after Rajiv Gandhi, the only prime minister born in Mumbai, the mood was festive, as every car owner seemed to want to “experience" the bridge before they started collecting the toll. Drivers drove slowly to admire the glittering skyline, and some passengers were busy filming the trip on their mobile phones.

The bridge, built at a cost of some Rs1,634 crore, is an engineering marvel. It looked spectacular at night, as it lit up the sky with its gentle glow. On the first night it was open to public, it took us 18 minutes to reach Bandra from Worli—10 more than promised, but probably 30 less than what it would have been otherwise.

The bridge avoided the choke points of Prabhadevi and the Mahim Causeway. But it also avoided the intricate tapestry of the city. It created a parallel universe, alongside the teeming city, but not part of it, where cars would zip through the new link, bypassing the network of lanes that give the city its heartbeat. And that desire to bypass the city’s rhythm has a major long-term consequence for the city.

When the first of the disused mills made way for shopping malls and fancy restaurants, with flyovers rising above congested lanes, my friend Naresh Fernandes, who edits Time Out, made a characteristically astute observation: The city would now get divided. What religion, language and caste had failed to do, the new roads would now do. Over the years, the engagement of newly minted professionals—who work at Nariman Point and live in the suburbs—with the former working-class areas of Parel and Lalbaug has declined considerably, Fernandes says. As they travelled on the flyovers, some brazenly expressed delight in being able to soar over “mini-Pakistan", as some call Mohammed Ali Road.

The city’s great unifier, the democratizing element, has been its suburban train. Here, everyone came together, cheek-by-jowl, making room for others, adjusting a little to squeeze in one more passenger, extending a helping hand to the one chasing the train, as Suketu Mehta describes it evocatively in Maximum City.

Mumbai is an island, a linear city like Manhattan, and it uses space judiciously. With its prosperous business district in the south driving real estate prices to stratospheric levels, it has forced people to live further and deeper in the north. The train has become the city’s lifeline, carrying two-and-a-half times the number of people it is supposed to carry during peak hours, and nearly nine out of 10 people who travel to work daily use the train. And those trains operate with astonishing efficiency. To stop them, you need a torrential downpour that breaks all records, or a coordinated terrorist attack.

But it is hardly an easy ride. The trains are choc-a-bloc at peak hours; many passengers cling to straps and rods to travel long distances; nearly a thousand die each year falling off the trains; several thousand more die crossing the tracks, overrun by trains.

Utilitarian logic would suggest that the quality of life would improve through investment in mass transit—an underground network, use of surplus land to extend tracks, and utilizing the harbour for water transport. If Hong Kong can keep its ferries running despite typhoons in the South China Sea, surely well-engineered boats can take on the monsoon fury of the Arabian Sea?

But the priority now seems to be to bypass obstacles and fly over inconveniences, even if it benefits the few, and not the many. Tycoons want helipads (but at least it is their own money), and the wealthy want expressways that the state is expected to fund. Priced steep by local standards, the toll will not help mass transport. It will bring more cars into the city where, despite property prices that are among the highest worldwide, car parking fees are among the lowest, thus encouraging more to drive.

That’s dangerous: Mumbai likes to see itself as India’s Manhattan. Many here nod knowingly when they see Saul Steinberg’s famous cover, “View of the World from 9th Avenue", published in The New Yorker in 1976, of how the city’s residents viewed the world.

But there is another salutary lesson Manhattan offers. It is public transport that keeps that city moving. The huge investments Robert Moses made from the public purse over 40 years—bridges, parkways and freeways that became landmarks—knit the city, but at a huge cost. As Robert Caro’s book The Power Broker (1974) reminds us, Moses left a devastating trail of destroyed communities as his policies made the city more expensive and out of reach for the poor. Forty years later, the queues of cars remain long.

What the sea links bypass, what the bridges fly over, are parts of the city’s fabric that must not be torn apart. Leapfrog over them, but the landing can get rough.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com

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