One of Mumbai’s principal contributions to popular culture has been its vocabulary. The word bindaas typifies Mumbai. It means a happy-go-lucky, fearless attitude. It’s a spirit immortalised in Johnny Walker crooning on Marine Drive the Mohammed Rafi classic: Ae dil hai mushkil… It speaks of the Great Mumbai Dream, where a penniless youth can become a tycoon and live to sing about it. But is the bindaas spirit still alive?
Many believe it is dead. We in the television business, after the horrific blasts, saw the Mumbaikar rise to the occasion as few citizens of other metros seem able to. We saw vehicle owners taking the dead to hospital. We saw homeowners handing out food. We saw strangers comforting each other. Bedsheets appeared out of nowhere. Corpses were laid out on the platform. Tracks were cleared. Anonymous hands reached for the injured through the mangled metal. We reported this as faithfully as we could because we saw stories of undoubted courage and fortitude.
But a battery of self-appointed media critics became unhappy. They rained abuse on us. They cribbed and scoffed that we 24-hour news channels eulogise the Mumbai spirit too much. We sensationalise. We fictionalise. We are not deep and complex enough. We are unable to understand that it’s simply the survival urge that drives the Mumbaikar back to work, not the ‘Mumbai spirit’.
Sure, a reality check is due. India’s foremost megalopolis is turning inwards. There are few mixed localities left and cosmopolitanism is under strain, with those with Muslim surnames finding it difficult to rent a house. Last year, a cloudburst pushed Mumbai monstrously to the brink. The Bombay Municipal Corporation is perhaps the most corrupt civic body in the country. When the floods submerged the city, the BMC weakly responded that the drainage had been faulty for over a hundred years.
If 2005 was the year the civic authorities were exposed, 2006 has been the year the police has come under the microscope. Since the 1993 serial blasts, police intelligence systems have considerably weakened even as the terrorist machinery has become ever more sophisticated. Ask any honest police officer in Mumbai, and he will tell you horrifying tales of ‘rate cards’ for promotions and transfers, of demands for better resources and technology being lost in files, of intrigue and interference at every level. Two years ago, the Telgi multi-crore stamp scam revealed how the rot in the police force had reached the very top. Instead of playing tough with terrorists, the Maharashtra government seems to find greater joy in playing moral police, whether in seeking to close down dance bars or investigating fashion shows.
Indeed, not much appears to have changed between 1993 and 2006. The Shiv Sena is still around, weaker and badly splintered, but still with the capacity to unleash a mob to burn buses. Sharad Pawar may have packed his bags and become a ‘Dilli-wallah’, but his legatees in the Congress-NCP alliance are still unable to look at Mumbai as anything more than a business opportunity. The underworld still endures. Dawood Ibrahim may be in a safehouse in Pakistan, but the vacuum has been filled by even more dangerous terror groups. The criminal justice system remains in a crisis. No one has been convicted as yet for the ’93 serial blasts and several accused in the subsequent blasts have been let off. There is still no sign of urban renewal, with over 60 per cent of the population living in shanties that occupy 13 per cent of the land and 10 per cent of the population living on the footpath.
In this state of urban anomie, the romantic Johnny Walker spirit-of-Mumbai is perhaps simply a celluloid illusion. Perhaps it is gritty paapi pet ka sawaal that drives the Mumbaikar back to his job, the day after his commuter train was blasted. Dull helplessness seems to be the opposite of the happy-go-lucky resilience. Yet, gaze a little closer and you’ll find that between the two polar opposites of celebration of the ‘Mumbai spirit’ and the doomsday predictions of ‘no spirit only hopelessness’, there is another truth that lies in the middle. Ask the question: which network actually worked during the blasts? The roads? No. The police? No. Mobile phones? No.
The network that actually worked was the human network. It was the average Citizen Mumbai who ferried the wounded to hospital, who ripped through metal to extricate fellow travellers, donated blood, drove the stranded, fed the hungry and sheltered the lost. Within half an hour, the injured had been taken to hospital. It was Citizen Mumbai who took them there, hours before official agencies like the fire brigade or the police arrived.
What the government in Mumbai needs to do, therefore, is empower Citizen Mumbai not by eulogising his ‘spirit’ but by actually providing facilities that allow his talents, his philanthropy and his inordinate energy to flourish. Don’t get lost in romantic songs about Salaam Mumbai, instead meet Citizen Mumbai halfway. Ensure, first of all, that Citizen Mumbai always has access to information. For this, cellphones and internet services must be made much more widely available than they are. How many lives would have been saved if the rescuers had known exactly which hospital could cater to which injuries. If cellphones had worked, hospitals could have sent out notices saying where to take the wounded and how to get there. Empowering the Mumbaikar with information has to become the first duty of the city’s government. If the Mumbaikar is constantly networked, constantly supplied with all the information he needs, imagine how far he would take his city. Already, this time, bloggers and other media played a constructive role in disaster management. This development needs to be enhanced and allowed to grow.
I’m no urban planner but some measures seem to me to be very urgent. There needs to be a multiplicity of sites for Mumbaikars to work. There is no reason why 5.5 million people need to come into central Mumbai to earn their daily wage. In this age of communication, of satellites, of the information super-highway, Jogeshwari, Thane and Borivili can all be slowly but steadily transformed into satellite townships so that the working crowd is split up and decentralised. The other crucial measure is to allow Citizen Mumbai to move. It is urgently necessary to create a road system that does not fall into gridlock, but allows the free flow of traffic and the free movement of people, so that in a crisis situation Citizen Mumbai can rush to the rescue as he never fails to do. The state needs to allow Citizen Mumbai to be more of himself.
Already Citizen Mumbai is empowering himself. There are no calls to communal violence. Instead, there is a growing clamour for speedier justice, for ensuring that those found guilty in previous attacks are not spared. Last year, after the floods, several citizen groups filed court petitions demanding answers from the civic body. Now, similar answers are being sought from the law and order machinery. Maybe, the bindaas spirit was the creation of a more innocent time. Perhaps the media critics are right, that singing odes to Mumbai’s resolve is uncalled for. Yet, at the same time, I believe that it is the Mumbaikar who can save Mumbai and it is he who needs to be seriously and soundly empowered if the city is to survive.
The writer is Editor-in-Chief, CNN-IBN and Channel 7 firstname.lastname@example.org