Mumbai chaos: It's not money, it's not migrants, it's poor governance

That the city is genetically programmed to plod along is known but the prospect of an urban collapse is rarely contemplated. Could it because there's too much hope around?

Akshaya Mishra October 12, 2011 15:08:20 IST
Mumbai chaos: It's not money, it's not migrants, it's poor governance

Functioning anarchy. That small but expressive phrase fits snugly into any description of Mumbai.

More than 22,000 people crammed into every sq km of space; 750 vehicles for every single km of road; less than two sq mts of open space per individual; 54% land occupied by slums; sky rises in competitive vertical growth with scanty civic facilities to fall back on; and new infrastructure projects like the metro and monorail being foisted in that cramped environment.

If the casual visitor finds the city utterly chaotic, well, he has reason to.

How can a city survive all this? The more pertinent question: How long can a city take all this?

The fancy title of the 'financial capital of India' does not really go with the ground realities in the city. For the record, Mumbai accounts for more than 6% of the country's GDP, 25% of its industrial output, 70% of total capital transactions, 33% of Income Tax collections and 60% of customs duty. It is also the country's commercial and entertainment capital.

Mumbai chaos Its not money its not migrants its poor governance

That the city is genetically programmed to plod along is known but the prospect of an urban collapse is rarely contemplated. Reuters

But look at the city's roads — the potholes, the traffic, the congestion and all; at the local trains with people hanging precariously out; the sprawling slum clusters with grave questions of hygiene and living condition tagged to them; the decrepit chawls and people living on footpaths; and news reports of crime and corruption. The mismatch is glaring. It's a city missing many of the basics of civilised living. Ironically, it's also a city dreaming to be Shanghai.

For a dispassionate observer, irreverent to the greatness and the so-called never-say-die spirit of the city, Mumbai does not make sense. It may not be a dying city yet. But it looks to be city on a suicide mission.

That the city is genetically programmed to plod along is known but the prospect of an urban collapse is rarely contemplated. It could be because there's too much hope around, too many individual aspirations to distract attention from the city and its living conditions.

It could also be because of the pressure of the migrant population as some political parties believe. They have no sense of ownership since they are outsiders and want to stay outsiders. The argument forms part of the exclusive agenda of the parties. But what is conveniently forgotten here is they also contribute to the prosperity of the city. They have been as much part of the city’s history as the locals.

Is it the burden of the past all old cities carry? Poor planning and disorganisation is common to all of them. Many times the damage caused centuries ago in the form of civic arrangements is beyond redemption. This is partially the case in Mumbai. It is also possible that the city gets back a fraction of what it contributes to the country in terms of revenue. It is too little to get the city in order. This is an argument put forth by some political parties.
But the biggest missing piece is governance. Mumbai, for most part, appears to be on auto-pilot. It survives because it has learnt to find order amid chaos not because of any conscious effort from the government and the civic body.

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The Adarsh society affair exposed the nexus between those who wield the power to manipulate. But that should not be news. The media keep digging up scandals of different sizes on a routine basis. Greed seems to have taken over the city's soul and the institutionalised solution to keep it in check is falling apart. People who should be managing the city have certainly failed to do so.

The headlines keep drilling into us the failings of institutions. The dominant perception is that the city is run by the builder-politician nexus which is aided by an accommodative bureaucracy. This is a potent power combination that can bend rules with impunity and ingenuity.

Look at the rampant construction activities on CRZ, forest and other prohibited land, and the skullduggery over open space in the city and the simple issue of recurring potholes. Rules are in place, but the question is are they being implemented? Is there a will to do so?

With the economic interest of the power class converging here, there's little hope.

The question again is: how long can the city take it?

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