A New Year resolution for Mumbai: start fixing the city

It has been a muted start to the New Year in Mumbai where, instead of overflowing pubs, bars and restaurants, it is the demolition squad of the municipal corporation that has been in overdrive. As party hotspots and their extensions, encroachments and trespasses come to be investigated, as civic officials are suspended for turning a blind eye to the violations that led to the death of 14 in a pub in the last week of December, the New Year rolled in on a sombre note.  

Is this really the "City of Gold" that makes dreams come true or is this a space-crunched megapolis that everyone wants to milk? In that sense, is Mumbai dying and what should be done?  

These were the questions that came up as investigations mounted into the pub fire in Parel in south-central Mumbai, which has seen a dramatic mills-to-malls transformation. This is a place where stood the cloth mills that once were the second largest employers after the government. As the mills died and as the workers who resided in the neighbourhood got pushed out, there came glass facades where the hip go to party. The very places where mill workers first raised the banner of revolt by smashing light bulbs to protest extended working hours brought on by artificial light are now the places where people follow trends, merge with the mood and dance away their blues.  

This is to note rather than lament the changing times. To adapt is also to thrive and this is the story of Mumbai. But there is a bitter twist when the idea of commerce at all costs leads to fanciful theories and wild explanations of the kind offered recently - that fires and the deaths in these mishaps are caused by overcrowding. From here comes the next leap: that entry to the city should be restricted.  

The idea that migration into Mumbai must be controlled is not new; it comes up every now and then. The Shiv Sena aired it within hours of coming to power in what then was the Bombay Municipal Corporation way back in 1985, and the actor-turned-MP Hema Malini has fallen into the same trap now in the light of the blaze that has had the establishment sit up and take notice.

She has, of course, been criticised for saying in a television interview that "there is no space now" for more people to enter Mumbai, the financial centre with a population of over 20 million. Her argument, if it can be called even that, was little more than a poor 'Bollywoodised' idea of life in the city.

The real picture is very different. Adaptability has come along with industriousness and enterprise, creating what look like win-win opportunities and an ecosystem in which businesses have thrived. This is well established but not as well understood.  

Enterprise is not only in the empire that Dhirubhai Ambani built or the rags-to-riches tales of filmstars but also in the millions of smaller scale successes built on the sweat of people who have nothing to lose and who put their everything into the game. Stories of ingenuity and enterprise can be found everywhere: the street shops, the dabbawallahas, the vada pav stalls and their 'McDonaldised' versions selling in stores, and yes, the hookah bars and the fancy pubs that make this the city that never sleeps. But equally, a part of the enterprise (and increasingly a larger part of it) is showing up in playing the system, in getting things done, somehow and at any cost.

An underhand economy

There are many more illegal vendors and establishments than those that are registered; some 60% of the people live in slums; artists paint by the wayside in one place and there is a school run on the streets at another. The demand for services of all kinds is high and it offers the kind of opportunities that few other places can. This builds a sense of energy that gives Mumbai its characteristic pace, a bustling, busy city. But it has also meant a huge underhand economy in which everyone is ready to do the deal. Anything passes muster if the price is right. The worst of these violations happen under the nose of the municipal corporation, which prides itself on being called one of the richest municipalities in Asia. A large corporation run with loose controls delivers violations that are equally large. Other arms of the administration stand by, hand-in-glove.  

Egregious violations are under "building permissions" where there were as many as 42 processes requiring 300 to 500 days for clearances, which the corporation claims have since been cut down to eight processes requiring 60 days for clearance. The situation was tailor-made for disaster. Repeated personal face-to-face interaction means more demands, and it is not surprising that there is a full-fledged industry in getting these approvals with costs factored in at the planning stages itself. Reports say the pub that caught fire had received a fire clearance just a few days before it went up in flames. Nothing could be worse.

In fact, the fire department itself has been under some kind of crisis. On the one hand, there is the huge administrative work of inspections that it is not geared to handle and on the other is also a lack of adequate training, infrastructure and equipment.

Clearly, there is a lot to be fixed if the city is not to lose its charm and character. But the one way not to do it is to speak of "outsiders" who flock here for these are the people who make Mumbai tick, work and thrive. The darwan who salutes as you enter tony hotels, the disc jockey who keeps the dance floor alive and the bartender at the counter are as much heroes as Hema Malini was a heroine. She is not from Mumbai, nor are they. But together, they are Mumbaikars who make the magic of Mumbai happen while the owners and authorities who allowed flouting of norms act like the outsiders. And that is the argument that would make for a good toast to the New Year in Mumbai.

(The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR)

(The Billion Press)

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