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Wednesday, Nov 20, 2019

London holds up a mirror to Mumbai

Comparisons with between Mumbai and London are inevitable. Both are cosmopolitan cities and global financial hubs – Mumbai increasingly so as India moves from Third World to First World status

mumbai Updated: Jun 14, 2019 00:46 IST
Ayaz Memon
Ayaz Memon
Hindustan Times
Picture for representation only.
Picture for representation only.(HT Photo)

The past fortnight I’ve been in London – travelling intermittently to places wherever India’s been playing in the cricket World Cup – marvelling at the vibrancy and efficiency of this city. Travelling by underground railway has been a highlight, as always.

This is not my first visit to England: That was way back in 1983, for the World Cup, which India won. I’ve been here a dozen times at least since and the tube rail system has never failed to fascinate.

What is a massively complex system has been made extremely commuter-friendly through simple instructions and colour codes that make even reaching the farthest corners of a huge city hassle-free. This is further enhanced by the consistency of service. For resident and visitor, there is nothing worse than delays and unpredictability of travel. True, there are breakdowns at times, but for the most, the tube rail is driven by precision.

Among the features of travel within London is the synchronicity between the tube rail and bus services which allow the same ticket/pass to be used for travel on either, adding even more ease for mass rapid transport that a city of this size needs.

These commute facilities, particularly since the buses are red, is a constant reminder of Mumbai. Most buses in London, however, are double-deckers and a wonderful throwback to the erstwhile fleet managed by BEST.

Interestingly, I discovered only recently that registered public transport (trams originally, from 1873) and the suburban railway (1853) in Bombay actually started plying earlier than in London (tube railway in 1863, buses about four decades later), which is a good brownie point to record but lapses quickly into despondency when you consider where the two cities now stand in commuter advantage.

Comparisons with between Mumbai and London are inevitable. Both are cosmopolitan cities and global financial hubs – Mumbai increasingly so as India moves from Third World to First World status.

In the old days, when Mumbai was Bombay, the city was positioned as the New York of India. Maybe it was the tall buildings, the sea, the fast pace of life, the correlations of finance and advertising to Wall Street and Madison Avenue that prompted this comparison.

But in fact, the nexus with London was always greater, India having been of the British colonies obviously being the main reason. Even now, much of Mumbai’s historic Indo-Sarcenic architecture strikes a bigger chord with London, where imperial majesty shares space with The Shard and The Gherkin.

Barring the weather, a walk in downtown Mumbai – say from VT to Colaba, taking in Hutatma Chowk – could be well like walking in a central London precinct. Except that several of these buildings in Mumbai are beginning to show their age, and roads are, well, not quite praiseworthy.

The handwringing and possible dire consequences of Brexit apart, London is not a crumbling city. For infrastructure infra and in ethos, it remains contemporary and sharp, brimming with professionalism and culture.

That is something which Mumbai needs to be seized of. Where roads are concerned, for instance, it is a right royal mess. Mumbai is also paying a heavy price for ill-planned urbanisation and civic apathy which has not just marred its legacy, but also imperils its future. Even where culture is concerned, there is so much more that can be done.

There are countless reasons why Mumbai has not been able to develop as fast and as well as London (which, remember, was like a glorified slum at the time of the Industrial Revolution), not the least being scarcity of financial resources. The issue now, however, is with no resource crunch, can Mumbai do a rapid course correction and become the city everyone believed it would become several decades back?

There are several attributes that Mumbai shares with London: cosmopolitan ethos, strong work ethic, a fairly good commute system (which can easily become even more impressive), more safety for women compared to other cities in the country, etc.

But this needs to be complemented with more robust effort in other areas in housing, education, sanitation, health, a myriad avenues for pursuit of entertainment and culture, and a concern for the environment that improves livability. For instance, London has 40% green cover, which not only makes the city look pretty – an obvious seduction for tourists – but also healthier, which means higher productivity from its denizens.

I won’t assign all these requisites as the responsibility of authorities alone. Ultimately, any great city reflects the character and mettle of its people. If Mumbaiites want better, we need to be active participants. We must meet our end of the deal and simultaneously be unafraid and unrelenting to demand the best from authorities.