Mumbai in 2016: A year of small victories, surprise endings
A ROAD SCAM WAS UNCOVERED; ARRESTS MADE
A scam should typically hold some element of surprise (my word, did he really bug the offices of his political opponents; no way, did he really fake that much stamp paper?). The surprise element in this year’s road repair scam was that the guilty were being brought to book. It was enough to make one re-evaluate all one had held to be true, enough to make one wonder, ‘What next? Builders forced to play by the rules?’. After the initial surprise came waves of delight as, finally, finally, contractors, municipal officials and even chief engineers were booked and taken down to the station in handcuffs. They had cheated on materials and contracts and laid waste to the roads they were supposed to fix. There followed a similar crackdown on those who had pretended to clean stormwater drains and done only the most cursory of sweeps, if any. Good times. Now it’s time to test the fruits of the crackdown as the rains approach.
On November 8, in a sudden announcement, prime minister Narendra Modi announced the demonetisation of existing Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes. As per RBI reports, that was 86% of the currency in circulation.
After the initial shock, the move was met largely with applause for a government that was pro-people, and a fearless leader now following through on his election rhetoric to weed out black money. Yet, as time passed, and the inconveniences were prolonged, the jubilation began to die down.
Unprecedented queues outside banks and ATMs became familiar sights across the nation, and criticism of the government for poor planning began to gain ground. The Opposition, with interests of their own, called it a gimmick ahead of the UP election.
And it did not help that the rules on exchanging and depositing old currency, and caps on withdrawal, were changing all the time.
The issue has remained hot on social media all along, with the latest coinage being “Reverse Bank of India”, after the rollback on the Rs 5,000 deposit limit for old notes.
The jury is still out on the move. But the use of “demonetisation” as a joke for a job well-intentioned but badly executed, and the more serious fear of an impending fall in GDP, do not bode well.
TATA, MISTRY HAD A BITTER BREAK-UP
It’s had all the makings of a TV soap, played out on the business pages, starring India’s largest conglomerate. First there was the shock announcement in October: Cyrus Mistry was told, as part of a discussion of miscellaneous items on the agenda at a board meeting, that he would need to step down as chairman of the $103-bn Tata Group. What followed felt like the worst break-up in history. Amid plunging stocks and full-page advertisements, the two sides began a very public game of you-know-what-you-did and do-you-want-everyone-to-know-what-you-were-like-behind-closed-doors. It went from shocking to riveting to frankly quite embarrassing. Common friends ended up taking sides; peers made public statements trying to exonerate their guy. As things stand, it looks likely that the fight will be fought on a legal platform, turning this into one messy public divorce. The only hope is that small shareholders do not lose their investments and brand Tata is not sullied.
UBER AND OLA OVERTOOK THE KAALI-PEELIS
Years from now, when send your grandkids to school in self-navigating, zero-emission, superfast transport pods, tell them how the smart-commuting revolution began. This was the year Indians realised they didn’t need to wave their hands endlessly or plead with a kaali-peeli driver in order to hail a ride at rush hour. India became Uber’s largest market after America in 2016, accounting for 12% of all trips booked around the world. Local competitor Ola, the market leader, upped its game with in-car entertainment, a multi-use pass and a subscription scheme that allows users to bypass surge pricing for a fee. Uber fought back with carpool services and even ventured into two-wheeler options for a while. Meanwhile, kaali-peeli drivers went on strike in protest, driving still more traffic towards app-based rides.
SAIRAT REDEFINED THE MARATHI BLOCKBUSTER
Sparks flew when Archi met Parshya on screen in April. Those sparks set aflame Solapur society, where the film is set. It ignited conversations about inter-caste love, which the film is about. And it burned through previous box office records, becoming the first Marathi film to cross Rs 50 crore, and eventually Rs 100 crore worldwide. Filmmaker Nagraj Manjule intended for the film to echo his own experiences as a lower-caste person in rural India; it ended up resonating with viewers across the country and beyond. The film’s young stars — actress Rinku Rajguru is just 16 — are still grappling with fame. And the tunes of ‘Zing-zing-zing-zingaat’ played almost on a loop all through the festive season.
DEONAR FIRE SET NEW STANDARDS FOR AIR POLLUTION
One of the defining images of 2016 has to be that before-and-after NASA tableau showing smoke slowly enveloping the city as the Deonar garbage dump burnt. It was like a candid, tragic selfie of a city drowning in neglect.
As the massive, 326-acre dump burst into flames again and again, it was like all our skeletons came tumbling out of the closet at once — the overcrowding, the lack of civic sense, the total absence of any vision or long-term planning. From January through March, firefighters kept dashing back to the scene as pockets of gas erupted. Sometimes the fires took days to put out, sometimes a week and more.
In heavily populated neighbourhoods nearby, such as Chembur and Sion, windows had to be kept shut and still children complained of burning in their eyes and difficulty breathing. The Bombay high court has since set up a monitoring committee to watch over the dumping ground. There are reports of the BMC using drones to monitor the landfill.
We still don’t separate or treat our garbage.
MUMBAI GOT A NEW RAIL STATION; IT WAS CALLED RAM MANDIR
A project, sanctioned a decade ago, is completed after several years of missed deadlines. Nothing unusual there. We needed a railway station at Oshiwara. We could have built a railway station at Oshiwara, simply called it Oshiwara, and life, and the relentless Mumbai local, would have gone on as usual.
Instead, Mumbai’s first new Western Rail station in decades became a platform for religious, and political, one-upmanship. Enter Ram Mandir. According to the powers that be, the station is innocuously named after the road leading up to it, and a local temple. But the controversy and criticism that ensued tell a different story.
Add to that the sloganeering by local BJP and Shiv Sena workers — each trying to take credit for the station and the name — on the day of the inauguration, and all claims of just-a-name go out the window. It also points to the growing dissent between the two parties currently in power. And it seems to have set the ball rolling for a few other name changes. But politics aside, the station at Oshiwara bridges a 3.2-km gap between Jogeshwari and Goregaon, and comes as a blessing for the local residents.
A CALL CENTRE SCAM PUT US ON THE GLOBAL CRIME MAP
They had floor monitors and team leaders, telecallers and login sheets. And all they were doing, day after day, call after call, was scamming US citizens.
It was straight out of a Hollywood movie — and ironically, this one wasn’t a copycat plot. It was an evil genius with a taste for crime.
The multi-crore Mira Road call centre scam emerged in October, after one of the callers boasted to a friend that all he did all day was impersonate US tax officials on the phone and get the person on the other end panicky enough to pay.
The individual sums usually weren’t large; but put together, the spoils ran into an estimated $300 million.
Soon after the telecaller’s boast, seven fraudulent call centres were raided and shut down, and 70 people arrested. In the spirit of diversification, it turned out the criminals had set up branches in Ahmedabad too.
The mastermind, Sagar Thakkar alias Shaggy, is still at large, though his ‘mentor’ and key ‘investor’, Jagdish Kanani, was nabbed in October.
Never mind the lack of leave and unregulated hours; there are now clearly new reasons to begin monitoring the industry.
OPERA HOUSE REOPENED
For the culture set, first-look shots from the Royal Opera House, refurbished, restored and reopened after 23 years, were Instagram gold. The 500-seat baroque-style theatre, the only one of its kind in India, closed down in the 1990s after first switching to Hindi films. But when it opened for the inaugural event of the MAMI Mumbai film festival in October, you could practically hear the gasps, oohs and aahs behind the pictures on social media. Did you score a seat for an event? You must have seen the Italianate balustrade, the dome featuring frescoes of great men of the stage, that elaborate chandelier, the Minton floors tiles and those stunning gold accents. And you probably appreciated the modern touches: discreet air-conditioning, comfortable seats and elaborate chandeliers. Don’t believe the old-timers. Even in its avatar as a film theatre, Mumbai’s Royal Opera House never looked this good.
HUMBOLDT PENGUINS CAME TO THE MUMBAI ZOO; ONE DIED
How did you first feel when you heard they were bringing penguins to Mumbai? For most of us, it was a mix of incredulity, mirth and dismay.
Imagine how the penguins must have felt when they arrived.
All through, there had been experts saying what should have been patently obvious — it was absurd to expect creatures from the polar icecaps to withstand the kind of weather than even most Bangaloreans can’t stand.
There were others, of course, including zoo officials, who insisted there were ways to make them comfortable (they still couldn’t explain why one would want to try).
Anyway, the penguins arrived from South Korea, as part of a never-ending Rs 433-crore zoo makeover project. But their home wasn’t ready. So they were put in a ‘quarantine facility’ where temperatures were supposedly kept between 16 and 18 degrees Celsius.
Three months on, in October, 18-month-old Dory died. She had never even been put on display; the other penguins still haven’t been. But the zoo says they’re doing fine.