Mumbai makeover plan in need of a genuine makeover

  • Smruti Koppikar, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Nov 05, 2014 18:38 IST

The Mumbai makeover would be a priority for the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis stated, in his interviews last week after the oath-taking ceremony. The devotion to this makeover project has turned into a ritual for chief ministers, irrespective of their political affiliation and intellectual persuasion.

Fadnavis’ assertion in 2014 sounded all-too familiar because, before him, chief ministers Prithviraj Chavan, Ashok Chavan, the late Vilasrao Deshmukh had similarly declared their commitment to the makeover project after becoming chief ministers in 2010, after the 2009 and 2004 assembly elections respectively.

There’s an inescapable sense of déjà vu for those following this complicated narrative for more than a decade. The project has its roots in the “Vision Mumbai” report of 2003 prepared by the global consulting firm McKinsey, engaged by the pro-industry lobbying think tank Bombay First. The report was accepted and implemented by Vilasrao Deshmukh’s government without delay in 2004.

As that year ended, Mumbai was swept by a series of unprecedented and wide-spread demolitions of slums. Records show more than 90,000 slum tenements razed within weeks under heavy police security, rendering nearly 5 lakh Mumbaiites homeless and shivering in the cold. The consequence of the demolition drive forced the United Nation’s gaze on Mumbai; the UN Special Rapporteur for justice and human rights visited the city and submitted a scathing report on the myopic and lop-sided policy.

The two developments – the government’s implementation of the “Vision Mumbai” plan and the mass-scale demolitions – were not unconnected. The plan to turn Mumbai into a global financial hub was broadly based on two pillars: Infrastructure upgrading and slum redevelopment. Carriageways – roads, bridges, flyovers, underpasses, coastal road, ring road around the city – were seen as the drivers of this makeover to allow free and smooth passage for road users, especially those using private and semi-private transport. Slums which occupied only 8-10% of the city’s area were to be done away with because more than 60% of the land they occupied was to be freed up for commercial development.

A decade later, there are more carriageways and there’s talk of more. The additional flyovers have not eased the traffic flow. Quite the contrary. The slum sprawl is smaller because thousands of slum residents have been “rehabilitated in peripheral areas” as the report advised, or in ugly and impractical slum-scrapers that have become a visual meme in the city.

The Mumbai makeover is not incomplete only because of the tardy implementation of the plan (though the tardiness is also a cause for concern). It remains so because the plan itself was not comprehensive. It focussed on limited aspects –one of them contentious – of what would make the city a global financial hub. The plan should have been only one of the diverse components in the Mumbai’s transformation and remodelling; instead, it was the only one adopted by successive governments.

In 2014, as in 2004, we are witnessing a mismatch between the potential for the city’s growth and the enabling processes that will support it. Infrastructure, concentrated on carriageways, is only one such enabling process. Upgraded and augmented public transport, affordable mass housing, quality primary and higher education, accessible and affordable health care for all, open spaces with free access for all, demarcated pedestrian plazas and bazaars, integrated and multiple-use localities instead of sanitised commercial business centres, leisure spaces are a few other components that should have been necessarily included in the Mumbai makeover.

Such a comprehensive makeover called for ideas and inputs from multiple stakeholders and citizens of Mumbai, not only a section of the industry. Instead of re-dedicating himself to the narrowly cast Mumbai makeover plan, Fadnavis should have gone in for a course correction: evaluated progress, reviewed aims and objectives, taken fresh ideas and visions on board. Given the understanding he has exhibited so far on urban issues, a simple reading of the original plan would have showed up its lacunae.

The Mumbai makeover plan itself badly needs a makeover. In bowing to it, Fadnavis has lost a chance. So has the city.

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