Friday, July 15, 2011

Mumbai, Parallel City

Today's Op-ed by Girish Kuber in Indian Express is the best description of the plight of Mumbai!

That there is little governance in Mumbai is quite an understatement. In reality, there is no governance. A huge, ever expanding mass of humanity, cramped in a tiny, narrow expanse of land makes it a low-cost, high-impact model for terrorist groups. It is no coincidence that terrorists continue to strike this megalopolis almost at will. Time and again, it has been proved that cities with dilapidated infrastructure and poor civic mechanisms suffer more during such attacks. And so the common, hapless Mumbaikar is seen to be a low-risk target for even amateur terror outfits.

The root cause of all of Mumbai’s ills is its uncontrolled growth and the city’s ability to attract the poor from all corners of the country, despite all its odds. The city, in every aspect of life, has problems of plenty. At present, it houses more than two crore people of which more than a third, around 85 lakh, live along roads, railway tracks, etc. They have no homes. Every day, Mumbai witnesses some 65 lakh people crisscrossing the city suffocatingly crammed into local trains in order to make their living. A little over than half of these use city buses every day. It is like a small-size European nation moving from this end to that end every day. A lot has been written, talked about Mumbai’s never-say-die spirit. The much-hyped Mumbai Spirit is nothing but the city’s helplessness that it is being forced to be always on the move. The poor Mumbaikar has no choice but to keep moving. Else, he faces the danger of being left behind by the world speedily moving around him.

The city, which has an annual budget bigger than more than half-a-dozen Indian states and that houses double the number of people than do some European nations, has been politically orphaned for quite some time. Political establishments of all hues milked Mumbai to the hilt. At present, there are 19 agencies that run the city. For example, for the relatively routine job of maintaining roads, the city is divided among four agencies. It has that faceless, inherently corrupt government department called the PWD. Then there is the MSRDC, a loss-making state-owned corporation created to build and maintain roads. Add to it the MMRDA, a city planning authority, along with the local municipal body.

The same goes for the machinery expected to handle law and order. The state has a director general of police who cannot call the shots in its state capital, Mumbai. Because there is another body called the Mumbai Police whose chief competes with the state police chief for supremacy. Even within the Mumbai Police, the chief of its intelligence wing has been accorded near equal status to that of the Mumbai police commissioner. As a result, he usually does not like to report to the city police chief. Not to mention newer agencies such as the Anti-Terrorism Squad, Force One, Quick Response Team, etc. Remember how too many cooks spoil the broth?

As far as planning is concerned, the city has its own local self-government, the BMC. For the last two decades, it has been controlled by the Shiv Sena, which propagates its sons-of-the-soil prescription. Since the Congress has successively failed to capture the cash-rich BMC, it created another body called the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority, or MMRDA. It is controlled by the state government where the Congress has had an uninterrupted reign. Through the MMRDA the Congress gained access to the city’s resources and tried to have its finger in the pie.

At the state level, Maharashtra has two parallel governments. One led by Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan and the other by NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s nephew, Deputy CM Ajit Pawar. As per the alliance arrangement, the crucial home and finance ministries are with the NCP which has a one-point agenda: to unseat the Congress wherever possible. In this game of one-upmanship, any politician doing anything good for Mumbai faces the danger of being painted anti-poor in his home constituency by the rival. For many, to be called pro-Mumbai is shorthand for being anti-poor. The irony is that almost all important politicians have homes and families in Mumbai, their kids make best of the city’s opportunities but none dares to take steps to improve its infrastructure. This dichotomy results in Mumbai having ministers with a rural mindset who are ill-equipped to tackle modern, metropolitan sensibilities. As a result, state Home Minister R.R. Patil, who belongs to Satara in the rural heartland, ends up acting as a moral cop.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Mumbai has the Shiv Sena, the BJP and that new kid on the block, the MNS. The Sena, though it espouses Marathi causes, hasn’t grown much politically. It continues to handle the issues affecting the city in a manner that smacks of extortion. Its offshoot, the Raj Thackeray-led MNS, has yet to prove that it can do any good than beating helpless pani-puri vendors on the street. Senior member of the saffron camp, the BJP, have willingly allowed the Sena to appropriate its political space and, as such, the party has reduced itself to a level of insignificance in the city.

The common Mumbaikar sees one universal factor binding these different political forces. That all are a part of the contractor-driven economy. More than the needs of the people, the Mumbai economy serves an all-pervasive entity called the contractor. This class, that has strong bonds with politicians, has large stakes in the city and can go to any extent to safeguard them. With a large swathe of the poor around, there is no dearth of lumpens who can be groomed for criminal activities. Although Mumbai prides itself in its service sector, the politician-contractor nexus has failed to create a hospitable climate for the service industry. A sizeable number of small-scale industries in Mumbai have downed their shutters over the years because of the poor work culture and absenteeism and a distorted idea of unionism.

Mumbai has grown into an unmanageable beast. The dinosaur and mammoth faced extinction not because there was nothing left to feed them, but because of their unwieldiness. The same may hold true for Mumbai.

The writer is executive editor of ‘Loksatta’,

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