The city centre or downtown seems to have a life cycle of its own. It attracts people and capital, driven by a complex set of factors it grows to become the thriving nerve-centre for commerce and the arts, the ball keeps rolling, then it turns unattractive or unaffordable for a large number of residents who then move into the suburbs, which sets off a gradual decline of the centre. After a period of desolation comes its renewal or revival. This is a recognised pattern in international cities. It is now becoming evident in Mumbai too.
There was anecdotal evidence in the last few years. New and swankier business districts rivalled Fort and Nariman Point, the entertainment industry flourished in the suburbs, the railways registered higher ticket sales and footfalls in the suburbs, and so on. The Census Survey 2011 confirmed the trend. For the first time in its long history, the island city showed the sharpest dip of 5.75% in its population over ten years.
The suburban and Thane districts registered the largest increases in population.
The latest delimitation of municipal wards, announced on Monday, was another confirmation of the trend. The boundaries of wards were redrawn to match the population in them. There were seven fewer wards in the island city; the wards in the suburbs increased correspondingly. The old business districts of Mumbai such as Fort and Cuffe Parade, trading centres such as Kalbadevi and Pydhonie, the early affluent areas of Malabar Hill, Pedder Road and Walkeshwar, working class areas of Byculla, Agripada, Worli and Mahalaxmi, all thinned out.
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The suburbs, Goregaon, Malad, Dahisar, Kurla, Deonar and Mankhurd, saw sharp rises in their population. New business hubs, first-generation millionaires and billionaires, expansion of the entertainment industry, the resettled working class, the newest mega slums to beat Dharavi were all in the suburbs. Thane showed a similar pattern of growth. The message was clear: the suburbs were where the new capital, jobs and citizens were, where the arts and culture flourished, where slum-dwellers and the homeless flocked to.
The delimitation has been deconstructed by politicians from only the political perspective – who will lose which seat, how to ensure a ward remains loyal to a political party, and so on. The unhappiness among politicians has been matched only by their manoeuvres to retain political power. The full force of these manoeuvres will play out in the coming months as Mumbaiites elect 227 corporators to the general body of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.
Beyond the politics and the machinations lies the narrative of the transformed – or transforming – Mumbai in which its earliest urban core is showing signs of atrophy. The middle and working classes have been ruthlessly priced out of the city centre by high property prices and over-crowding. These are early days. And Mumbai downtown may never go the way that cities such as Detroit and Houston did in the United States – though, there, the wealthy left the downtown for suburbs – where local governments had to devise special packages to revive them.
But what it does mean is that Mumbai’s policy makers, the Maharashtra government, elected representatives, citizens’ groups, business and corporate leaders have to think in new ways for the long term. The suburbs need a different nature and level of attention and investment than what they have had so far, different from what the island city needs. This thinking is not evident in any quarter of the government or business – not in the Development Plan, vision documents, policy statements or the like.
The suburbs are the new buzz areas. It will take more than a metro line or two to make sure the suburbs have the physical and social infrastructure they need – for the next 25 years if not 50. Mumbai has become more suburban. And the vision for its future cannot be left to the real estate lobby.