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Travails of an Ordinary Citizen

In its headlong rush to become a world-class city, Mumbai is forgetting its ordinary citizens - the slum and footpath dweller, the hawker, the daily commuter - all of whom contribute to the city's economy. As the city rises to more towering heights, and as the most basic of amenities continue to be denied the common citizen, Mumbai appears headed towards a future that is more congested, more iniquitous and increasingly less sustainable.

Travails of an Ordinary Citizen

A Tale from Mumbai

In its headlong rush to become a world-class city, Mumbai isforgetting its ordinary citizens – the slum and footpath dweller, thehawker, the daily commuter – all of whom contribute to the city’seconomy. As the city rises to more towering heights, and as themost basic of amenities continue to be denied the common citizen, Mumbai appears headed towards a future that is more congested,more iniquitous and increasingly less sustainable.


umbai is to have new twin towers, both 57 storeys tall, higher than any other in the city. The residential blocks are to come up ironically on the land where the Apollo textile mill at Chinchpokli once stood. This might well be rubbing salt into the wounds of the textile workers, who have been thrown out by market forces.

The first three floors will be reserved for car parking, according to reports; indeed automobiles are far better looked after in this globalising city than people. With the kind of skewed development Mumbai has seen, it is not surprising that the city’s roads are clogged and that on the first rains of the season on May 31, things became worse. Streets were flooded making a mockery of official claims that it was fully geared to face the monsoon.

The common people are most often the victims and the sufferers, yet it is they who are blamed by those in power. And while injustice and insolence grow in the city, victims are left with fewer and fewer spaces for protest or discussion.

Consider the reaction of T Chandra Shekhar, commissioner of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA). The body is known for ruthlessly implementing the so-called beautification projects in urban areas. He fulminates against democratic dissent describing protesters as “so-called social activists and so-called human rights activists”. He accuses them of “taking undue advantage of the democratic process in India”. He said in an article in Times of India (May 19, 2006) that, “In the west fewer people take undue advantage of democracy”. The west has a much stronger tradition of protest on urban issues compared to the general apathy in India. Jane Jacobs, the outstanding urban planning expert, relentlessly fought vested interests all her life. Just a few days before her death, aged 89, in April this year, she had sent a letter of support to the residents of Vancouver in their fight against a destructive highway project that would harm the local wetlands.

Ironically, on the very day Chandra Shekhar launched his diatribe against the common people, one of his seniors in the Maharashtra state bureaucracy, the additional chief secretary Ashok Khot, was nabbed by the police at Mumbai airport. Khot and the state’s forests minister Surupsing Naik had been sentenced by the Supreme Court to jail for a month for flouting the court’s directive for several years, by allowing illegal running of timber saw mills in forests.

So here are two top state authorities found guilty of damaging the environment. But it is protectors of the environment who are dubbed as villains. Chandra Shekhar and the likes of him have seldom attacked builders who flatten entire hills, pollute lakes, dump construction debris into the sea and lakes and destroy mangroves.

In such a situation, rehabilitation of the poor is not on top of the agenda. World Bank had strongly disapproved of the rehabilitation for those displaced by the MMRDA’s road and rail projects and suspended assistance for the bank-aided projects in Mumbai. That has angered Chandra Shekhar; he now says we should have never taken the bank loan and his opposition is not for ideological reasons. A few months earlier the state’s environment minister Ganesh Naik had asserted that Mumbai’s open spaces should be sold to builders to wipe out the government’s rising debt. And this in an overcrowded city which is notorious for having the lowest open space per 1,000 residents.

Slum dwellers are blamed for encroachment but the area they occupy is insignificant considering the thousands of acres which have gone to private builders following the closure of hundreds of factories in the last few years. With a little imagination at least a part of this land could have been used for much needed civic amenities. It is the development of highrise buildings, flyovers, airport expansion and the development of the Bandra-Kurla complex that has created major problems for Mumbai, not the so-called encroachment by slum dwellers. The political class realised the folly of this form of development only when vast parts of the city were submerged and hundreds of people were washed away by floods on July 26, 2005.

After this havoc the political class realised that more than flyovers, malls, multiplexes and fast cars were needed. Basic infrastructure like the drainage system needs to be upgraded. However, road building and expansion remains the main agenda of this form of development.

Hawkers and Shopping Malls

But even as the upper class has become empowered under the regime of globalisation, the common people continue to have little voice. Front organisations of the upper class calling themselves citizens’ groups have acquired considerable clout in recent years and are increasingly asserting themselves making constant demands on the bureaucracy and the political class. They are obsessed with seeking the ouster of slum dwellers and hawkers. It is an irony that Mumbai has enough space to meet the demand for high class housing and shopping malls that take up millions of sq ft of land but the upper class would not let the poor occupy even the most degraded land available that is vulnerable to landslides and waterlogging.

The trouble with Mumbai is that not only the politicians and the bureaucracy, it is also the upper class that has failed the city. Occasionally, the upper class does intervene but only to protect its turf or beautify its neighbourhoods as in the case of the affluent residents opposite the Oval Maidan who have saved and improved the green space with generous corporate support.

The Shiv Sena, which speaks in the name of local culture and identity, has proved to be even more friendly to big builders and business interests than the Congress. The role model for some of the young Congress politicians is Rudy Giuliani, the former New York Mayor, known for his distaste for civil liberties and

Economic and Political Weekly August 12, 2006 demonstrations. Much more relevant to Mumbai would be the former Bogota Mayor Enrique Penalosa who laid out cycle tracks, cut down on car use and pedestrianised large portions of the city. But our elite would have nothing to do with him. In a sense our democracy is less sensitive to the poor than the military regime under which Penalosa functioned.

Open spaces are seen mainly as a recreational issue but there is little awareness that such spaces are also vital for democratic expression, articulation of which, whether on streets or in other public spaces, is being stifled. Even in the citadel of capitalism, the US, millions can march on the streets to protest against the war on Iraq or to oppose attacks on immigrants, yet morchas cannot be taken in Mumbai to the Mantralaya, the seat of the state government. And this in a city once famous for its working class militancy, demonstrations and highly disciplined marches and strikes. The demonstrators are now confined to Azad Maidan, a colonial era ground and their isolation is enhanced by a humiliating barbed wire fence.

In Paris, the barricades were the weapons of resistance in the heady days of 1968, in Mumbai they constitute weapons in the hands of the police to keep the ordinary people from coming in the way of motor cars. Even footpaths are now barricaded, reducing walking space and barriers have been built in the middle of the road to prevent people from crossing. There is definitely a spatial apartheid in Mumbai.

Of the few open green spaces in the city, several are not accessible to common people as these are controlled by private luxury clubs and other institutions. Several municipal parks are being privatised with entry fee unaffordable for the poor. So these cease to have any meaning as public spaces. Places such as the Almeida park in Bandra which is still fully accessible to the people are increasingly a rarity.

Of the very few democratic spaces left in Mumbai, one is the Horniman Circle garden, maintained by the industrial house of Tatas. It actually reserves one area of the lawn for common people to eat food. This is very important considering that normally people are barred from even sitting or walking on the lawn, not to speak of eating in the garden. The other space is nearby, the central library in the Town Hall where anyone can walk in to browse through the newspapers, journals and books on display. Such facilities should be available all over, especially in a democratic regime and in the information age. But they are not. The wide and imposing steps of the Town Hall serve as a space for the poor to study at night. Behind Poddar hospital in Worli one lane has become an area for students to study. India’s richest city whose upper class wants to make it a world-class city has not created a single decent public library since independence.

Eating houses, formerly accessible to the poor, are now closing down as in the case of the historic Irani restaurants, they are being converted to other uses or being upgraded to serve higher income groups. A Gujarati writer J P Shukla told me a street cobbler, he knew, could share a table with him in an Irani café at Chowpatty 30 years ago. This is unthinkable today. It is not just the prices that have risen, the ambience itself has changed. So ordinary people are now forced to eat street food. For the rich, street food is a diversion but poor deserve a place to sit down and eat after a hard day’s work.

A Pedestrian Problem

A war is now being launched against footpath dwellers. Much is made of slum dwellers and hawkers blocking footpaths and inconveniencing pedestrians. The fact is most of Mumbai has not been provided footpaths by the richest civic body in the country. This is a denial of a basic human right. Besides, the municipal authorities have removed booksellers from the pavements between Hutatma Chowk and Churchgate station that were favoured by thousands of commuters. The reason given is that books obstruct traffic. So the logic is that cars parked on footpaths do not obstruct pedestrian traffic but books do.

The new footpaths are unscientifically designed. It requires no particular engineering skill, just a little application of mind is needed to make decent footpaths. Pedestrians need no fuel, cause no pollution and require such little space. Yet, they are the most discriminated against.

It is rare that the elite takes note. Surprisingly, Anand Mahindra, the noted industrialist, went out of his way when he wrote “pavements represent everything that is wrong with our attitude and culture, no attention is given to details, they are almost always never finished and are always unclean” (Times of India, May 30, 2006).

While walking spaces for common people are neglected, there is a substantial increase in recreational walking spaces either for jogging and running. These have been created by affluent residents with corporate or government support. But these are limited to upper class areas. Marine Drive is now being beautified at the public exchequer’s cost of Rs 30 crore, what it needed was only a little maintenance. Instead it is to be made so shining and posh that the poor will hesitate to reach there or feel ill at ease and unwanted.

The function to launch the Marine Drive beautification project was held earlier this year at the far end of the promenade, opposite the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), an elite institution run by the industrial house of the Tatas. The more appropriate venue would have been the other end, the Chowpatty beach, where thousands of ordinary people gather in the evening.

The phenomenon of private luxury juxtaposed against public squalor that J K Galbraith, the celebrated economist talked about, is becoming more and more visible in Mumbai. While there is a mushrooming of luxury hotels, pubs, multiplexes, shopping malls, gyms and exclusive housing estates, public squalor is growing.

In south Mumbai as the poor are moving out to less costly residential areas, primary schools are closing down, while in the suburbs where the poor are in larger numbers students spill over into staircases and open spaces outside classrooms which are crumbling in any case. Mumbai was a much more inclusive city a few years ago with fine infrastructure available to the poor. In the very heart of the working class area of Parel is a very big complex of top class public hospitals including the Wadia hospitals, one for children, another for women, the KEM Hospital, Tata Memorial Hospital, and a research centre, the Haffkine Institute. These are equipped with excellent facilities known all over the country. The hospital complex is unique in the world, says Vidya Acharya, a veteran doctor and teacher. Generations of doctors have studied here and generations of children of working people are born in the hospitals here. Besides, the hospitals are of considerable architectural and heritage value. But the Wadia hospitals are under threat of privatisation which means they will soon be out of bounds for the poor. The area has an excellent access to other basic needs like the city railway and bus service, and has wide, though not well-maintained footpaths. But gradually, the poor are being thrown out of the area with the closure of cotton textile mills and the area

Economic and Political Weekly August 12, 2006

is being swamped by luxury residential buildings.

The state has now even abandoned construction of houses for the poor. The poor cannot expect to buy even from the market forces as private developers build only large apartments where profits are much higher. Several large housing colonies built by the housing board in Mumbai are now in a rather run-down condition but they have marvellous open spaces, are built on a human scale unlike those monstrous highrise clusters where you feel completely dwarfed, unsafe.

The judiciary and the upper class are increasingly unsympathetic to the homeless and seeking their ouster. Even in Los Angeles, the glamour capital, the judiciary is more sympathetic to the homeless. It ruled last April against the police arresting the homeless sleeping on the streets. The judge said human beings cannot remain in motion perpetually and need place to rest. The authorities must provide them shelter before throwing them out.

For the Children

Another large category of victims of the new form of development in Mumbai are the children. Several developers do not leave the mandatory open spaces in building compounds, no space for children to play, for parking of cars or for firefighting equipment to come in. If there is any open space at all, it is taken up by cars.

There is a very dangerous trend of children now joining gyms to tone their muscles which can be very harmful at this age. Unscrupulous gym managements and ignorant parents are encouraging the trend. Gyms are sprouting all over Mumbai indicating a growing corporatisation of the human body. In a city with obscenely wide income disparities even the middle class now thinks it is below its dignity to walk and do normal physical exercises.

Mumbai was famous for producing test cricketers who learnt the basics while playing in little lanes and streets. These are now out of bounds due to hazards of increased traffic. In future children may have to go to indoor cricket coaching centres run by corporate interests. Huge shopping malls are also now beckoning children with playing facilities and large size images of animals right at the entrance. But these few corporate profit-oriented islands can be no substitute for dwindling public spaces available for children in parks and gardens. In the corporatised privatised parks not only is playing not allowed, one cannot even sit or walk on the grass. This is a travesty, robbing people of the very basic longing to be in touch with mother earth.

In a hot and humid city with a large number of people who walk in the course of their economic activities there is a deplorable lack of street furtniture, and things are worse in the suburbs. There are only few benches to rest for a while even at prime railway stations like Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus or Churchgate . The older, wooden benches are better designed, the newer, industrially produced steel benches provide for very precarious, uncomfortable sitting.

The issue is a basic lack of respect for common people. See the contrast between Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the architecturally majestic Victoria Terminus, built in the 19th century, and the more recent Churchgate Terminus. The Victorian era station is far more pleasant, more airy, more spacious, one would not mind waiting there for a train in the absence of benches. Churchgate is pathetic in comparison, it gives one a feeling of claustrophobia with its low ceiling, poor ventilation and little social space. And this is one of the busiest of stations in the world, used by hundreds of thousands of people daily.

The idea that street space should be shared by various road users, that is emerging in the west, is unknown here. In Europe road space is being increased for pedestrians and reduced for cars. In Mumbai feudalism still prevails, the motorist rules and other subjects must make way for him, suffer the insulting horn blowing, the hot exhausts and be ready to be run over or knocked down. There are occasional eruptions of public anger and vehicles are set on fire when children or other innocents are crushed under wheels. By and large people are tolerant but there is a limit to their patience. The war on the poor became all too obvious when a cyclist Raju Makasare, 32, was roughed up by a police constable and was fatally run over by the municipal bus at Dadar TT on June 12.

The cyclist, a delivery man, was a victim of the state’s blatant discrimination against the poor. He was pushed because he had allegedly jumped the traffic signal. But then motorists blatantly flout the signal right outside Mantralaya, the state government headquarters and at Marine Drive.

The trouble with Mumbai’s upper class is it is completely unaware of emancipatory ideas about road culture. A rich man in Mumbai would rather be dead than be seen walking on the road. The whole culture of taking a stroll, socialising on the road is missing. Mumbai desperately needs a movement like “Reclaiming the Streets”.

The result is that public spaces and streets are badly neglected. Public urinals are few and badly designed, even those in architecture colleges. These are built slavishly by western standards for men of six feet and above, without any consideration for the average height of an Indian male. Of course there are no separate facilities for children, it is almost as if children do not exist or do not count. It is only in fivestar hotels, the British Council, the American Centre and a few such places that one notices usable urinals. And things get far worse for women as a study has shown.

Story of a Road Crossing

Mumbai’s corporate sector has now launched a big drive to make Mumbai a world-class city even though the city lacks the most elementary infrastructure like adequate drinking water, drainage, primary schools and postal services. The corporate sector’s idea of running Mumbai with a powerful corporate-oriented CEO is at best fanciful, compared to the experience abroad. During his visit to Mumbai in November 2003, prince Charles, heir to the throne of Britain, made it a point to meet the dabbawalas who deliver tiffin or lunch boxes to office-goers. After all, dabbawalas are an exceptional lot. These pyjama and Gandhi cap-wearing humble people have won praise in Fortune magazine, the Guardian and The Times, and even from management gurus. Prince Charles chatted with them in the Western Railway headquarters and was in fact apologetic and asked them if his visit did not delay their work. But railway and police and municipal authorities in Mumbai are far from being helpful. In fact, they are harassing these hard-working, honest, intelligent people.

The accuracy with which the dabbawalas deliver dabbas from one point to another several km away, through a pretty complex system of picking up the dabba, loading, unloading at numerous points in handcarts, buses and trains, is resulting in only one mistake in millions of cases. No wonder, the dabbawalas are being heard with attention in the Indian Institutes of Management and in business seminars.

The dabbawalas are not asking for any highway or flyover. All they need is the restoration of a little amenity that will not cost a single paisa. They merely want a

Economic and Political Weekly August 12, 2006 little passage to cross the road from the Churchgate station to the other side where the Western Railway headquarters is located. The crossing will also benefit millions of other commuters.

But so insensitive and brutal is our system that while hundreds of crores are being spent on building freeways for the benefit of motorists, this little amenity is being denied dabbawalas and other commuters. And all this because a few motorists must get priority over millions of ordinary people. Till about three years ago, people could conveniently walk across this section and there was in fact a traffic signal there. Then the authorities built a wall at the Churchgate side, built a road divider on Maharshi Karve Road and removed the signal.

It is elementary knowledge that the maximum facilities should be given for hundreds of thousands of people emerging from the train terminus so that they can disperse quickly. Nowhere else in the world perhaps do so many people pour out of railway stations and they are all working people, contributing to the city’s economy. But in Mumbai maximum impediments are being created for commuters by simply blocking their exits and forcing them to use the tunnel, forcing people go up and down. All this because the authorities want to give priority to motor traffic. Here again they are completely wrong. In the west, there is now a growing realisation that motor car traffic must be discouraged. And there is a whole science of what is known as “containing traffic”, ensuring that car trips are reduced.

The pedestrian tunnel at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and Churchgate Terminus in Mumbai is an example of the insult to which hundreds of thousands of commuters are subjected to daily. They are made to walk through suffocating heat and humidity. The municipal corporation, whose army of engineers designed the subway, is squarely to blame for the horrible mess. It has doubly punished pedestrians. First, it makes them use the stairs for the convenience of motorists and then makes pedestrians suffer heat and congestion. Then it has recovered the cost of this outrageous project through devious commercialisation by letting out the space to a row of shops which adds to the heat and the misery of commuters.

The 2,870 sq m area tunnel built at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus at a cost of Rs 15 crore and opened in 1999 is so horrendous many commuters desperately avoid it even though this may mean missing the regular train home or reaching office late.

Such is the callousness of authorities that two years ago they started imposing a fine of Rs 100 on people not using the subways at Churchgate and CST stations and some other places. The irony is compounded by the fact that the police put up banners at Churchgate station and elsewhere telling commuters that “jaywalking is injurious to health”. Have they ever put up banners asking motorists to use public transport instead so that there would be less pollution, less congestion on roads and less consumption of fuel?

A pertinent point in this connection is made by Dan Burden, state bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the Florida Department of Transportation. He asks why pedestrians should be made to walk half a mile to a traffic junction to cross the road when the traffic light does not give them enough time to cross the road anyway? It is much worse in India. Crossing the road by foot at a traffic junction with the green signal on for pedestrians is extremely hazardous. That is because the pedestrian crossing and the area beyond is already occupied by motor vehicles. By the time the pedestrian starts walking, she is suddenly confronted by the roar of traffic.

And while the authorities force pedestrians to walk through the hot, suffocating tunnels they do not care if these are badly constru-cted.They are heavily flooded in the monsoon. In Vashi in Navi Mumbai there was so much flooding in the newly built tunnel that an agitation by the residents forced the authorities to reconstruct the subway.

In Mumbai the state has virtually abandoned its basic duty of protecting the life of citizens. One needs just cite one example. As obvious, a little brief para tucked away in the media on December 21 last year. It says Kisan Pawar, 10, was killed and two children were injured when a motorist, aged 18, ran over them. He was riding a motorcycle and they were sleeping on the road divider at Marine Drive. As is clear, they were not crossing the road. Their only crime was that they were poor. Collecting fines from motorists is not a real deterrent. Other sterner steps are needed.

In another brazen step the municipal authorities have done away with the footpath, opposite the Mumbai High Court, abutting the Oval Maidan, to provide for car parking. Cars also block the passage meant for pedestrians. This is a fit case for the high court to initiate a suo moto case and pull up the civic authorities.

Even as the authorities are spending lavishly on flyovers and freeways, basic amenities continue to be denied to people. Officials and politicians living in isolation and luxury, do not realise that it takes as long as 15 to 20 minutes simply to cross a bridge at some of the railway stations. And that the bridges are poorly maintained and it is difficult to walk on the worn out, broken down steps.

The issues of urban land use and mobility for common people were driven home to me suddenly in one of my usual conversation with the gurkha watchman near my house. He keeps a night-long vigil on dozens of cars which are on sale but are parked 24 hours free of cost on the road around a park. For this he gets just Rs 2,000 per month after years of service. And the man in his 60s, who guards the cars, cannot afford even public transport. He walks daily five km each way between his little shelter in Santa Cruz and his shelterless workplace. Yet, he has the artistic spirit to play the flute every morning. And clearly, he does have talent. If I had heard this from somebody, I would have thought this was romanticising an ordinary man. But this is a sight I see daily.



A workshop on the Economics of Infrastructure, under the CAS programme, will be hosted by the Department of Economics, University of Mumbai, on February 10, 11, 2007. Local hospitality will be provided. Second-class AC rail travel will be funded. Young researchers are invited to submit hard copies of full texts of papers so as to reach the undersigned no later than October 31, 2006. Decisions will be communicated by November 30, 2006.

The Director,

Department of Economics,

University of Mumbai, Vidyanagari, Mumbai 400 098.

Economic and Political Weekly August 12, 2006

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