Geography has a way of intruding on the historical development of cities. All three colonial cities — Madras, Calcutta and Bombay — had their origin as British fortified settlements, but only Mumbai has retained its commercial importance. Because Greater Mumbai is a peninsula, the Fort at the southernmost tip of the city continues to serve as a central business district though its hegemony is being challenged these days.
Had Congress politicians not reclaimed tracts at Nariman Point in the 1970s, South Mumbai would have declined much earlier.
Mumbai’s development has been vitiated by its north-south transport axis, where offices were previously concentrated in the south and people lived in the northern suburbs, forcing them to commute long distances every day.
No other city suffers from this anomaly, and has been allowed to grow in many directions. This is especially true of the planned city of New Delhi; the National Capital Region (NCR), straddling adjoining states, is presently witnessing one of the biggest urban agglomerations in the world.
However, several factors are now working to diminish South Mumbai’s predominance. Only one is planned: the alternative central business district of Bandra-Kurla, where today real estate prices top those of Nariman Point.
A second nodal point has opened in Parel-Lalbaug on the east of the island city on land formerly belonging to cotton mills. This has happened due to the state government’s sleight of hand, which denied the public two-thirds of the 600 acres which were its due. Again, without any planning intervention, areas like Andheri and Powai in the northern suburbs are attracting commercial and residential investment.
Like geography, demography plays a role in the future of cities. The population of Greater Mumbai, contrary to public perception, is decelerating. It has only increased from 11.9 million in 2001 to 12.4 million in 2011.
Natural increase now accounts for the bulk of its bulge, as against migration. Jobs in the organised sector have vanished, starting with the mills but extending to heavy engineering and petro-chemicals. Eight of every 10 jobs in the commercial capital of the country are in the ‘informal’ sector and 60% of the population is homeless.
Geography has also once again intervened in changing the direction in which Mumbai is growing, which other cities do not face. It is the much larger metropolitan region — some 4,355 sq km, or 10 times the size of Greater Mumbai — that is growing. It now has some 18 million people, but by some estimates will touch 40 million by 2050, perhaps the single biggest agglomeration in the world.
Indeed, Mumbai is not “bursting at the seams” but at its extremities. The outlying townships of Thane and Kalyan are million-plus cities in their own right. Planners ought to consider this entire region instead of concentrating on outdated highways, which only serve the microscopic minority of motorists.
All these trends appear to have fallen on deaf ears, since the present state government is hell-bent on proceeding with a 29-km-long coastal road for Greater Mumbai, from Nariman Point northwards. This will incorporate the Bandra-Worli Sea Link which earlier the state wanted any private construction agency for the coastal road to “purchase” at its cost of Rs. 1,600 crore.
It has ruled out a continuation of the sea link because of its exorbitant cost of Rs. 600 crore per km. The current plan, which has received partial environmental clearance from the Centre, hugs the coastline, reclaims some areas, envisages bridges, stilts and tunnels at upwards of Rs. 100 crore per km.
The contours of the metropolitan region will change further once a trans-harbour sea link from Sewri in the island city to Nhava Sheva on the mainland is built. This will extend the east-west traffic axis. The new international airport is already being built there. In future, people can commute from the mainland to Sewri, which lies close to the mill land redevelopment.
However, the state is repeating the mistake it committed in Navi Mumbai by not building a rail connection along with the road.
It was expected that 1,25,000 cars would use the Bandra-Worli Sea Link daily by its second year, but only 45,000 do so. This means that Mumbaikars are subsidising the 8% of commuters who are motorists in a city where some 80% use trains and buses. All cities of the future, in a world beset by climate change, will prioritise public transport, while Mumbai is doing the opposite. Meanwhile air pollution threatens to thwart any notions of it becoming a ‘world class’ city, as politicians fantasise. The coastal road also threatens the city’s most prized asset — its waterfront.
The Indian Heritage Society held a meeting last week where three major transport projects were unveiled. The Hecar Foundation, comprising women architects, has proposed pedestrianising the stretch, among others, between Churchgate and CST railway termini, with cars going underground, creating 51 acres of green space in Fort.
This would benefit 7 million commuters who walk to work daily. Another, mooted by Ratan Batliboi, suggests a motorists’ tunnel between Worli and Nariman Point, which would save the coast. The third was the coastal road, which received the most lukewarm reception.
Darryl D’Monte is chairperson, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India
The views expressed by the author are personal