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It will be a long fight but Mumbaikars can take their city back

Kiran Nagarkar recalls post-independance Bombay and talks of how the city has transformed over time.

mumbai Updated: Jul 17, 2015 00:18 IST
Kiran Nagarkar
Kiran Nagarkar
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,Throwback,Victoria Terminus
File photo of CST. How can you not love Mumbai? The most glorious thing about it is that we are girdled by water. (HT photo)

I was born in Bombay five years before we won independence. I doubt if I understood what the word meant but it was obviously a very special day, for my father unfurled the new Indian flag above our door and took my older brother and me out at night to see the lit-up Victoria Terminus station and municipal corporation building and from there to Flora Fountain and the Prince of Wales museum. There were thousands out on the streets and truckloads of people zoomed past singing patriotic songs. It was a joyous time and even a five-year-old could feel that this beautiful city was entering a new age. The air I breathed was full of hope.

Those were the days.

The BEST buses didn't have numbers but letters of the alphabet. Which meant that including the Ltd. buses, I guess there were at the most twenty-six bus routes that connected the different parts of the city. Bandra and Sion were where Bombay ended as far as I was concerned.

Bombay was my city as it was of another three or four million people. Imagine, we were part of the dowry the Portuguese gifted to the Prince of Wales. For the longest time we were peripheral to the British colonial project. It was just good luck that the British were a trading people and ports were central to their mercantile ambitions. At some point Calcutta lost its importance, the capital moved to Delhi and Bombay-Mumbai began its ascendancy to being the premier port. It was also in the process of becoming the industrial hub of the subcontinent.

We had more cotton mills than even Ahmedabad and, come independence, the rise of Bombay was meteoric. (Don't forget that Gujarat as we know it today was part of the Bombay presidency.)

The Parsis, Marwadis, Sindhis, Punjabis, Gujaratis, Sardarjis were the business, trading and entrepreneurial communities who were the great drivers of the economy. It was an amazing cosmopolitan mix which was enlightened by the remarkable Maharashtrian reformist culture that had produced visionaries like Gandhiji's teacher, Gopalkrishna Gokhale, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, Jyotiba Phule, Ramabai Ranade, Maharshi Karve, Laxmibai Tilak and so many others. Bombay's arms were always open and everybody was welcome. In that sense Bombay and U.S. of A. were kindred spirits.

How can you not love this city? The most glorious thing about it is that we are girdled by water. Front, back, left, right, the sea's everywhere. But that's not all; we also have that other gift of the gods, the monsoons. Ask any Bombayite and she will tell you there's nothing in the world to beat the sea's romance with the city in the rainy season. Five- and six-metre waves whoosh over into the sky and it seems like every single Mumbaikar is packed tight on the parapet of Marine Drive to greet this incredible dance of water.

Who owns Mumbai?

The division of the country on linguistic lines was exploited by regional parties in Maharashtra to introduce the concept of the alien. (A most bizarre concept, that. How can an Indian be an alien in any part his own country.) Nevertheless, Mumbai continued on its rapid march forward. Twenty million people. At least six hundred bus routes. Mumbai boasts the most important stock exchange in the country. Mumbai's GNP is perhaps the highest in the subcontinent. Without doubt it is the financial and commercial capital of the country.

The city municipality's budget is higher than that of most states in India. Apartments in the city can go for as much as a hundred crores. Let's not forget Mumbai is also Bollywood and Bollywood is the heartland of our dreams, our macho fantasies, our subconscious, our warped sexual repressions and gender prejudices, our mainline culture.

The most powerful and rapacious force in the city, as we all know, is the real-estate developers' lobby financed by the politicians and mafia with their bottomless black-money accounts. Every little bit of open space is gobbled up by the ubiquitous triad of real-estate developers, politicos and the underworld. There was a great deal of hope that the new government bosses might be a shade better than the previous ones.

Well, we Bumbaiwalas never seem to learn. As we have discovered, the municipal authorities may have given permission for just fifteen or twenty storeys of a particular building but the builder can exceed that limit and build another five, seven or more with impunity. After all, the difference between legal and illegal is just a few crores under the table.

As of this moment the government is seriously considering regularising fifty thousand buildings in Mumbai which exceed the allotted number of floors. Truly our elected rulers are the most compassionate lot on the subcontinent. But the largesse gets even larger. It looks as if the floor space index (FSI, for short) may very likely go up, don't hold your breath, by a hundred per cent.

Over a hundred thousand flats lie empty and yet the prices never come down; instead, new ever-more-expensive, walled-in super-high-rises are put on the market and advertised every day on the glossiest possible paper while anywhere between forty to sixty per cent of the city's population lives on the pavements and in slums.

Sometimes one can be forgiven for wondering if the good denizens of Bombay are in a perpetual comatose state.

Think about it, eighty-five percent of the city's drinking water is laced with leaked sewage.

The malnutrition rates for children in the city hover around 60%; a rate that UNESCO considers genocidal.

Despite the presence of the sea, the quality of air is just a bit better in Mumbai than in Delhi, which can now boast of having twice the pollution of Beijing. We not only have one of the largest slums in Asia, we take foreign visitors on tours there as if it were a world heritage site. The endemic water shortage problems have only grown worse.

Obviously, the poor are the worst sufferers since the rich can afford to engage water tankers, but even this view is skewered. How come nearly seventy years after winning independence, the most prosperous city in the country still can't look after the most basic needs of its people, rich or poor?

Mumbai, meri jaan

Just a few years ago a visionary environment minister had the brilliant idea that four or five of the remaining lungs of Mumbai, like the racecourse, should be opened up for real-estate development. It was a brilliant idea but it didn't go far enough. It takes a genius like me to open up the field altogether.

Why waste invaluable space on roads, expressways, highways. Anyway you can hardly move on most roads most of the time. Go ahead, build, build, and build. Amen.

I remember my brother telling me that sarcasm is the weapon of the losers and the hopeless. Well, I'll be damned if along with 19.99 million of Mumbai's denizens, I am going to give up the fight for this beautiful city of ours. Ask yourself just one question: who own this city?

That nefarious triad, or you and me? No, Mumbai did not betray its people. We let down our beautiful city. Come let's take back our city. Bring everything to a standstill till the politicians of every hue realise that we mean business.

Let me cite just two examples. Some years ago, a school located just beyond the flyover on Peddar Road suddenly declared that it was going to close down because it was in a parlous state of disrepair. Everybody knew that the only reason for this announcement was that the owners wanted to develop the land for a huge high-rise. Well, the parents had a little bit of a surprise for both the owners and the government.

They got together and halted all traffic. Nothing would make them budge. Ultimately the government caved and the school is still going strong. The other example is very recent. The denizens of Bandra pulled off an amazing victory over the hawkers' lobby, one of the strongest in the city, and the government was forced to leave many areas hawker-free.

Make no mistake. None of us is naïve enough to think that we can beat the triad that easily. Oh, it's going to be long, long fight. But hey, our home, our city, is in dire danger. It will be a long and arduous struggle. However, if every one of the 19.99 million Mumbaikars joins hands, we can do it. Yes, we can. And we will take our city back.

(Kiran Nagarkar's forthcoming novel is RIP Ravan and Eddie. He lives in Mumbai)


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First Published: Jul 16, 2015 15:14 IST