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Bombay sitting duck

india Updated: Jul 26, 2011 22:27 IST
Ashok Malik
Ashok Malik
Hindustan Times
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Some years ago, an American multinational corporation (MNC) was looking for office space in Mumbai. It had almost finalised a rental deal in a prominent, well-located business tower. At the eleventh hour, spurred by some inexplicable instinct, one of the MNC’s senior executives hired a private investigator to find out who actually owned the building. The investigator got back in a few days. The building, he said, had been promoted by a front company for Dawood Ibrahim. The underworld don would be the MNC’s new landlord, albeit through a web of proxies. Startled and worried about possibly breaching American laws — which identify Dawood as a terrorist and prohibit commerce with him — the MNC backed out.

The investigator had not found it difficult to get the information. That the Dawood gang — the D Company — owned the building was an open secret in the Mumbai establishment. Senior politicians, police officers, civil servants and businesspeople seemed aware of it.

How is this anecdote relevant to the repeated terrorist attacks on Mumbai, including the one earlier this month? Much has been promised since the July 13 bombings about “securing our cities”, about using technology and intelligence and even enhancing the capacities of beat constables to prevent terror strikes. Yet can one secure a city that is — or civic governance in which is — inherently dysfunctional?

At the root of Mumbai’s criminality, as well as its politics, is its land mafia. In a sense, everybody is on the take. The Maharashtra government and the city police are factionalised and individual officers and ministers owe allegiance to different syndicates. In odd cases, there are informal business partnerships. For instance, a minister in the UPA government has been under suspicion ever since he made a big investment in a commercial tower a few years ago. It is widely believed the co-owners of the building have criminal antecedents.

What does this have to do with terror bombings? It can justifiably be argued that land sharks and corrupt politicians are not necessarily terrorists. Nevertheless, Mumbai’s teeming underworld provides convenient — though perhaps not always collaborative — logistical ancillaries for terrorists. Sourcing munitions, scouting and transfer of cash can be done by low-level mobsters who may not be jihadists but just professional criminals. Indeed, it would be no surprise if some of the super-profits from Mumbai’s real estate deals end up paying for terror operations.

The toxic nexus between developers, organised crime, politicians and police officers places an enormous infrastructure burden on Mumbai. Government land and public parks are handed out to cronies; bungalows are allowed to be demolished at will. In their place, 20- or 30-storey monstrosities come up on narrow lanes. This creates a civic mess and involves several economic crimes, primarily undervaluation and tax evasion. It is not always recognised that it also raises threat perception.

On most given Mumbai streets, peak-hour traffic is so thick that it is impossible to open your car door without hitting the adjoining vehicle. (To be fair, the situation is no better at say 6 pm at Delhi’s ITO crossing, and examples can be cited from other Indian cities as well.) Imagine what a car bomb could do. It would probably kill people not because of the intensity of the explosion but because they were stuck in their cars, unable to get out and run.

The example may sound facetious but it is realistic. ‘Securing our cities’ will remain a cliché until we give these cities quality infrastructure and ensure quick dispersal of traffic — for people to get away, for ambulances to come in, for commandos to arrive, whatever. The urban development and road ministers cannot pretend they have no role in safeguarding cities. The terror challenge is not entirely in the domain of the home or internal security ministry. Mumbai is a city essentially built along two parallel north-south roads. This makes it a sitting duck. Prithviraj Chavan, the state’s chief minister, has spoken of the need to decongest Mumbai. Is any lasting and real decongestion possible without building new urban spaces across the sea, on the mainland? Multiple links, from over-the-sea bridges to under-the-sea trains, would be mandatory.

This is how great cities have evolved, from New York to Hong Kong. This is what helps them combat crowding. This is what makes them safer. It is not sufficient to minimise the damage from terrorism, but it is necessary.

Unfortunately, the expansion of the Mumbai metropolitan area, and the incubation of a new and modern city across the Arabian Sea, have many enemies. These include developers and politicians who make their billions from exploiting the limited availability of land in Mumbai. They are not incentivised to enlarge supply lest it threaten their windfall gains.

Add to this the general Congress belief that urbanisation is somehow elitist and bad, and that the hinterland has a right to exploit the city without giving much in return. In Maharashtra, this has made provincial politicians the parasites that have bled Mumbai dry. They can hardly be its guardians. No wonder Mumbai is not only terrorism’s favourite but its easiest target.

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal.