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Don’t restore, refurbish or redevelop Mantralaya: shift it

With regard to the partially fire-ravaged Mantralaya building, three options appear to be before the Maharashtra Government: restore it, makeover with improvements, or redevelop on a better scale, all of which, of course, have to be in situ. A fourth option with wide-ranging as well as long-term impact on Mumbai would be to shift it out of the city altogether.

Any choice would be only after the structural audit of the building. The first three are going to be time consuming. Till any of the three is executed, those shifted from there would have to work from elsewhere, scattered across buildings and the city. The option chosen would determine how long that would be. Disruption in any event is a given. Shifting out would require such a disruption to continue for longer.

Shifting the centre of power to Navi Mumbai would decongest the city: PTI

Despite that, shifting out to a new location outside Mumbai would be most welcome and avoiding it would be a folly, meaning a lost opportunity at re-jigging Mumbai and reducing its phenomenal congestion, especially the daytime congestion as well as the strain on the transport system. There was a proposal to shift to Navi Mumbai even as it was being planned. Those who sanctioned a new city were those who prevented such a shift.

Mumbai, hemmed in by the sea, is already bursting at the seams. The Census 2012 has revealed that densities of Mumbai and Mumbai (suburban) was 20,038 and 20,925 persons per square kilometre, respectively, making it the densest city districts in the country. A decade earlier, across Mumbai, the average density was 20,317. The National Capital Territory Delhi (NCT) and Chandigarh, two other ‘most congested’ have 11,297 and 9,252 persons.

Decongestion is possible when populations are dispersed and the work locations also moved to the extent that a person ought to be able to walk to work or take an easy and short bus ride. In Mumbai’s case, the pace of decongestion despite a new city and enlarging of satellites has kept the congestion rate soft, but is not facilitating a remarkable decline, which is the need.

During AR Antulay’s time, when the Navi Mumbai plan, the world’s first ever such project to build a satellite city from scratch, started on its slow journey to materialise, the idea was to ask everyone – wholesale markets, businesses – to shift, but the government remained rooted to South Mumbai. Simultaneously, the reclamation of Nariman Point became a major passion though that stalled the growth of Navi Mumbai.

The value of real estate eked out of the Arabian Sea, besides the grandness of glass-fronted towers holds a lure from which Mumbai could never free itself. Then there was big money in reclaimed land, a prestigious address, when Navi Mumbai had then emerged as the place for the poor to go and live and come to work in South Mumbai. That was Navi Mumbai’s undoing – even today, it grows at a sluggish pace relative to what was conceived.

Shifting Mantralaya along with the Legislative Building and even the High Court would help rearrange the centre of gravity of Greater Mumbai and help develop Navi Mumbai at a pace which even the proposed airport has not managed to ensure. A decision to relocate would make for a major demographic change as well but only if the execution is well planned and rapidly done. It cannot be in slow motion akin to all government projects.

If the ministers are asked to work from their homes which seems to be the case, and officials are spread over the city, which also seems to be the case, the personal inconvenience of it all would add speed to the project. Dovetailed into the scheme should be proper housing for the staff of these institutions. And lo and behold, Mumbai would be different – less congested, more liveable. But if this were to be seen as externing the government, problems would surely arise.

The move would call for a lot of political effort in persuading others to accept such a shift, so important for Mumbai’s survival. The first argument that can arise is that lives were sacrificed to secure a linguistic Maharashtra along with Mumbai and this cannot be messed with. The second would be the vested interests among the elite of all kinds – why should we shift? We have our flats built on government lands secured cheap.

But over time, cities have to be planned anew simply on the grounds of logistics. With the frenetic efforts to redevelop Mumbai which is actually adding more space in the sky with no commensurate road widths, Mumbai is sliding towards more chaos. A day would not be far off when gleaming towers would abut narrow roads, water being insufficient - we are already almost getting there. Taking Mantralaya and other government institutions would decentralise the city to a remarkable level.