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What spirit? What city?

Every time there is a calamity in Mumbai, people talk about the ‘spirit of the city’. The cliché bobbed up again after bombs killed 19 people and injured 130 others in the city on Wednesday.

india Updated: Jul 16, 2011 22:41 IST
Sumana Ramanan
Sumana Ramanan
Hindustan Times

Every time there is a calamity in Mumbai, people talk about the ‘spirit of the city’. The cliché bobbed up again after bombs killed 19 people and injured 130 others in the city on Wednesday. To most people, the phrase refers to Mumbaiites’ resolve not to dwell on tragedy and their will to continue with their lives — to commute, labour, trade, party, shop.

For many of the city’s inhabitants, terror is now just one more harsh reality that their spirit — if there is such a thing — must endure. For many Mumbaiites, terror and its consequences of heightened security and a sense of fear come on top of daily horrors that they have internalised as a way of life, such as having to claw their way into overcrowded trains, to steel themselves against wading through filthy, flooded roads, to drink contaminated water, to live with stench and squalor.

But we need to ask a fundamental question: What do we mean by ‘spirit’ and ‘city’? If the word ‘spirit’ stands for a collective attitude and a shared consciousness while ‘city’ connotes common urban spaces and a physical togetherness, then in today’s Mumbai both ideas are wearing thin.

Even the most well-planned city has its ghettoes and fault lines, but the creation of large common spaces and facilities produces a countervailing force. In cities such as London and New York, for instance, wide, clean, abundant walkways for pedestrians, public transport and large common greens, such as Regent’s Park and Central Park, together create a huge shared urban space in which the city’s various strands regularly converge and converse.

Policy makers have not pushed hard for the creation of such spaces and facilities while the elite has betrayed a narrow vision and not demonstrated enough of a public spirit. Sure, we are in the developing world, but not enough of those who are influential even see merit in moving in that direction. So we have a city in which common spaces are shrinking and cars and roads are being privileged over public transport. Instead of a vibrant urban fabric, we have disjointed clusters of living and working spaces.

Mumbai has always been a city of stark class contrasts, but apart from a small sliver at the top, the rest of the city had a sense of being in the same boat. This is much less true today, with liberalisation allowing more people to join the consuming class. More and more of the nouveau riche are joining old money in distancing themselves from the masses in the slums and streets. Upwardly mobile professionals are barricading themselves behind gated apartment complexes.

Although they need cheap labour in their homes and offices to maintain their lifestyles, in public many can barely countenance the unwashed presence of those who provide the services, often looking upon them as an abstract and amorphous vote bank to whom politicians are pandering.

This mental distance, the divergence of ‘spirit’, is partly the result of physical realities that policy makers have created. We only have to compare the widespread outrage that the bomb blast on the London underground elicited with the reaction to the serial train blasts in Mumbai, where it was a distant reality to many. Almost everyone in London has a stake in keeping the underground secure; in Mumbai, many children from middle-class and upper middle-class homes have never set foot on the city’s suburban network.

As for education, many upwardly mobile parents are unquestioningly moving their children out to five-star international schools, but baulk at the prospect of accommodating alongside their own children others who by the sheer accident of their birth are born into less well-off families, as the Right to Education Act envisages.

One can understand that people want to insulate themselves from muck and mayhem, but educated Mumbaiites need to realise that there is a limit beyond which they cannot do this. What happens not only outside their gated complexes and colonial clubs in other parts of the city, but also beyond the metropolis, in Gujarat, Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh matters to their well-being. The riots of 1992, the bomb blasts of 1993, the serial train blasts of 2006, to name a few of the tragedies the city has had to endure, had their roots in events elsewhere.

If they are making the connections, then more of those who are influential and have a voice must put pressure on policy makers to make the city more equitable by pushing for the creation of high-quality common resources.

“A society cannot claim to be harmonious or united if large numbers of people cannot meet their basic needs while others live in opulence,” says the United Nations’ State of the World’s Cities, 2010-2011. “A city cannot be harmonious if some groups concentrate resources and opportunities while others remain impoverished and deprived.”

In connection with Mumbai, increasingly we can talk neither about a shared ‘spirit’ nor a common ‘city.’

First Published: Jul 16, 2011 22:40 IST