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The Angry Bombay-ite

Are you surprised that people are angry? That they are beating up cops? That they are opposing idiotic flyovers that will deface one of the world?s great cities? writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Apr 02, 2006 02:38 IST

Something strange is happening in the city of Bombay, and I’m not sure that anybody knows quite what it is yet. We are all familiar with the caricature of Bombay’s more affluent citizens, the one that so entertains and infuriates the rest of India: laidback, vacuous people, only interested in partying hard and making money, unaware that the world does not end at Juhu.

Bombay is my city so I’ve never quite accepted this characterisation. But yes, even I have been angered by the willingness of Bombay-ites (I’m sorry but I’m not going to call them Mumbaikars) to sit back and party as the city is raped and pillaged by gangs of invading politicians, all of whom win their elections in rural Maharashtra and then go on to make their fortunes in the city of gold.

The Bombay I grew up in — during the 1960s and 1970s — and even the city I worked in — during the 1980s — was a very different place. In 1973, Paul Theroux wrote that Bombay “smells of money” (he also added that Bangkok smells of sex and Calcutta of death). And perhaps he was right. But while it was always India’s commercial capital, it seemed to me then that Bombay cared about much more than just wealth. There was some sense of city feeling, some willingness to stand up and be counted, to fight for a better environment.

Over the last decade, however, I have seen that feeling dissipate and almost vanish. There’s much more money in Bombay than ever before. Everybody I know earns salaries that we regarded as unimaginable even five or six years ago. Deluxe hotels, lounge bars, shopping malls, fancy restaurants and designer stores pepper the landscape. That middle class dream — to own a flat in Bombay — once regarded as unachievable by everyone who earned monthly salaries now seems within their grasp.

But no city in the world has declined as rapidly or grown richer as quickly.

In many ways, much of Bombay is now an overgrown slum. Official statistics suggest that over half the city’s population lives in slums. South Bombay, where I grew up, resembles nothing as much as a giant parking lot. New buildings — many of them illegal constructions and built with utter contempt for infrastructural concerns — come up in the most crowded areas. The Bombay police, regarded as the best in India when I was growing up, are now only marginally more efficient than the Bihar police — and much more corrupt.

And yet, nobody seems to care. There may be a narrow-focused campaign against the redevelopment of mill land (and I am not even sure that the environmentalists are right about that issue), but the vast majority of Bombay’s more affluent citizens are shockingly content to spend their lives in traffic jams and to step over piles of garbage on their way to their multi-crore apartments. In the mid-1980s, MJ Akbar wrote, “The time has come for Bombay to establish diplomatic relations with India.” Twenty years later, my conclusion is that the people of Bombay need to establish some kind of relationship with the city itself.

Which takes us back to where we started: my feeling that something is, at last, changing.

Last week, the residents of Walkeshwar, an upmarket Gujarati-dominated enclave in Malabar Hill, decided that they were fed up of having to pay off policemen who kept towing their cars off the roads. Such was the public anger that a group of residents grabbed a police party and thrashed the cops.

To understand how unprecedented this is, you need to understand the background. For a start, Bombay’s Gujaratis are the city’s least violent people (a ‘Gujarati war-hero’, I always say, is an oxymoron on par with a ‘Bengali entrepreneur’ or a ‘Punjabi intellectual’). Secondly, nobody in Malabar Hill ever complains about anything. Thirdly, there is a long and shameful South Bombay tradition of simply paying off the police — it’s simpler that way.

So, while I do not condone the assault on the cops and accept that action must be taken against those who thrashed Bombay’s finest, you will understand what I mean when I say something strange and unprecedented is happening here.

Then, there’s the fuss over the Peddar Road flyover. If this monstrosity is built, it will completely deface South Bombay, obscure every heritage building and totally alter the city’s character.

Of course, that alone is not enough reason to oppose it. And certainly the media have taken the line that the protests emanate only from rich people who don’t want to hear the sound of traffic outside their windows. Nor has Lata Mangeshkar’s intervention helped. Though Lata now denies having said that she would leave Bombay if the flyover is built (and she may be telling the truth, given that the journo who claims to have interviewed her is now weaseling out of the story, saying things like “I have so much respect for Lataji that I cannot contradict her”), the remarks attributed to her have strengthened the view that celebrities and rich people are hampering Bombay’s interests.

In fact, the case against the flyover is a strong one. Apart from the environmental objections, there are very real fears that it will be a waste of public money that will do Bombay no good at all. The problem with the city’s traffic is that there are only two arterial North-South routes. The solution is not to build more bridges on these roads but to use the sea to open up more routes. But the sea link projects have languished for 30 years, and quick-fix solutions like the Pedder Road flyover are propounded by short-sighted out-of-town politicos who don’t give a damn about the city but want it to appear as though they are doing something for Bombay.

But regardless of where you stand on the flyover, it is the protests that delight me. For once in their lives, the residents of South Bombay have got up and fought for the city and its environs. It is a hopeless caricature to say that the protesters are those whose interests will be damaged by the bridge. Most of the people who have stood up and asked to be counted are Bombay-ites who are acting out of conviction only because they care about the city. And about bloody time, too.

After the Bombay floods last year, everyone woke up to the realisation that though Bombay pays Rs 60,000 crore in taxes every year, it gets back only Rs 1,000 crore for infrastructure. That statistic is shocking enough. But it was only after I moved to Delhi and was able to see how much money was spent on South Delhi that I realised what a bad deal South Bombay really gets.

The DDA alone spends Rs 600 crore per year in South Delhi (this excludes money spent by the PWD or the Highways Authority). Less than half that amount is spent on South Bombay. The population density of South Delhi is 9,033 people per square km. The figure for South Bombay is 43,989 people per square km — yes, you read that right. In real terms, the government spends under one-tenth-per-citizen on South Bombay residents of the amount it spends on each South Delhi resident.

Are you surprised that people are angry? That they are beating up cops? That they are opposing idiotic flyovers that will deface one of the world’s great cities? Don’t the people of Bombay have a right to say: “You have raped us for long enough; this has to stop now”?

I am surprised it did not happen earlier. But now that it is has started, may it never stop.