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Mumbai: A city insular to its citizens’ needs

An episode on the Khar station platform showed how those who run Mumbai don’t seem to know its people’s needs or the common man’s hardships.

An air-conditioning mechanic from Mira Road sat on one of its few benches and opened his lunch box and began to eat. The Railway Police constabulary pounced on him, took him to their office, demanded Rs 500 as penalty, accusing him of littering the station premises. Lokmat newspaper which followed up the case found that in one case, in the absence of the Rs 500 demanded, an offender – from their point of view, of course – had his cellular telephone seized. Later, the official in the police’s Bandra office explained away that it was not a ‘fine’ but a ‘deposit’.

Representational image. Reuters.

Deposit against what? He could not tell. What was the crime? He could not explain. Was there a rule not to eat on a platform? No answer. Perhaps, it was at the behest of the entities that are licenced to sell eatables there? We don’t know. Was it a case of finding new ways to extort money from the citizens? It could well be. Was it an overzealous public servant? It possibly could be but hard to believe because that tribe hardly exists. Not when even a merely duty-bound, honest public servant is hard to come by.

Now, back to how the city is insular to its citizens’ needs.

Those who work in the formal sector carry their dabba to work, to be opened and relished during the lunch hour. If they don’t or cannot carry, the dabbawallahs, ferry them, back and forth to them either from their own homes or providers of the meals from the khanavals.

Even those among the formal sector’s employees, there are many who need to be out during the day on business but out of their offices who find it hard to get their lunch into their stomachs. Like salesmen, or the above-mentioned AC technician.

Neither can they afford to eat in a restaurant, prices being what they are for even a simple fare comprising, for instance, idli and/or dosa. They settle for the sandwich, the vada-pav but to those in the service sector, working at the bottom of the pyramid, even that is expensive. A dabba from home, carried or delivered, is the best option.

If the Khar station rule had spread like contagion – these things of making money do spread – then people who need to move across the vast and crowded expanse of the city and the larger metropolitan city region would have to starve till they return home. That would be enormously inconvenient. The commutes in many cases take as much as two hours. They would have left home earlier too for the crush-capacity carrying commuter trains.

I know of a top-notch television reporter who would commute to office, take the van – prior to the advent of the OB vans – and rush about finding news and filing reports. Often, he would open his dabba by parking the van at some spot, even a no-parking zone, and gulp his lunch. Being a newsman, he could benefit from a traffic cop’s deliberate inattention.

There are a host of other requirements for a large city and a city on the move. Ask the taxi or the auto-rickshaw drivers. During their day-long driving for a living, they can’t find a toilet, however urgent the need. There just aren’t enough of them and neither are they evenly distributed across the city.

That explains why many a time, though not invariably, the refusal to take a fare. They are cruising to find a wall to lean against. Even that is not easy to find because virtually every place is built up. A bush is scarcer. Perhaps, one feature of Mumbaikars is a strong bladder. Only if you stay at home or work in a proper office can you afford a weaker one.

The city planners have also neglected another requirement. People need to buy stuff to run their lives and when there aren’t enough shops, they look for a hawker. That is how this institution of hawking took roots in the city which the civic body is unable to contain, leave alone eliminate. They are as ubiquitous as the slums.

Take Nariman Point. It was built from the reclaimed sea and lakhs come to work or on work.

When designing this one sq km patch as a commercial beehive, it was forgotten that people also need to eat during the day. At one time, it had one single but expensive Udipi restaurant which was closed after an LPG cylinder burst. Now perhaps there are two. No wonder that was an invitation for the hawkers who sell street-cooked food in defiance of court orders. Extrapolated, it is how the entire city is designed.

Even these Udipis are shutting down for a variety of reasons and, in its cruel cycle, enabling more expensive ones to come up with the business model which says, dimmer the lighting, slower the service, heftier the bill. The vada-pav vendor is also getting crushed under the weight of the daily haftas but tries to keep the prices down but finds it tough to retain a margin.

So what is the harm if someone opens a dabba on a railway platform and eats? When the city doesn’t take care of the citizens, the citizens take care of themselves, and the city gets into a worse mess. And informal innovations which stifle the citizens would keep springing up, making them the opportunities for earning that extra buck. The rent-seekers ingenuity is remarkable.

Hardships of being a common man would only grow.