As 2016 draws to a close, political parties will gather the momentum they need to win power in the prestigious Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation election early next year. Devendra Fadnavis and Uddhav Thackeray, leading the BJP and Shiv Sena respectively, have alternated between sniping at one another and shaking hands in faux friendship for the better part of the last two-and-a-half years of being allies in the state government.
In this mode, neither of them is offering visions and plans for the city that could fundamentally change the poor quality of life for millions. However, if they can get away from the typical pre-election populist and tokenistic announcements, they might want to look at a few themes which dominated conversations and conventions about urban living this year – tell us how these can be adapted to Mumbai. Here’s a non-exhaustive list.
The first major theme is that of inclusive urbanisation and inclusive governance of cities. This comes from the HABITAT III conference, the United Nations’ powered once-in-20-years roadmap for development of cities, held this year. The conference and its outcomes seem not to have registered on their radars. In the New Urban Agenda finalised at the conference, the word “inclusive” appears 36 times, an indication of how critical the idea will be to cities in the future.
Does Mumbai offer services and opportunity to all? Of course, it does not. Mumbai’s development – and redevelopment – is currently driven by the automobile-and-tech model in which people are marginalised; the poorer people are, the more so. Affordable housing, access to quality education and healthcare, safety and security, environmentally sustainable projects, a voice in the city’s governance structure – elements that can make the city inclusive are not heard often and urgently in their conversations.
In fact, the words “inclusive” and “sustainable” are mostly absent from their public discourse about Mumbai. To his credit, Thackeray has at least spoken up now and then for some project-affected, but Fadnavis, who as the state’s chief minister is the decision-maker, hardly ever speaks the language of inclusive and sustainable development. His focus has been on mega-project-led development in the city. The shortcomings of this approach are well documented, if only he would care to read.
The second major theme is that Smart Cities are now passe as urban thinkers and planners are increasingly confronted by the downside of tech-driven cities. The chatter about Smart Cities is being gradually replaced by that about Compassionate Cities. It is not about simply equipping a city with technology for select services, it is about using technology to offer all citizens access to services and making their daily experiences with official authorities pleasant. Cities, it is now believed, must put a premium on creating a great experience for every interaction they have with authorities. This is an unorthodox concept but valuable if the digital divides in Mumbai have to be bridged, if issues such as urban malnutrition have to be addressed.
Yet another theme is that of Innovation Districts. This takes off from the old idea of manufacturing or port-and-dock or creative hubs where industries/activities of a certain kind were clustered together, which in turn, powered the development of that city. Indian cities have done it with IT parks. The idea is to now nurture other kinds of economic activities – non-tech, creative, home-based – and not disintegrate the clusters that already exist. Think Dharavi’s economic hubs.
This would call for imaginative reasoning, redevelopment and re-use to offer walkways, bike lanes, transit points, wide open spaces, and so on around economic hubs. Mumbai’s commerce is not driven merely by two-three business districts. There exist other economic and creative clusters. How will these be nurtured? The eastern waterfront development offers another opportunity as do other cities in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. Critics of the idea say Innovation Districts cannot be created in all cities. Fair enough. But fostering them in some cities calls for large-scale vision, foresight and planning.
Dear Mr Fadnavis and Mr Thackeray, please go beyond your vote-catching populist pronouncements and a handful of mega projects. Mumbai needs more and better ideas.