Planners in Mumbai seem mesmerized by the success of Singapore. Perhaps it is the realisation that this Asian city state half a century ago was at more or less the same stage of development as Mumbai, but has now catapulted itself to become one of the richest countries in the world, with a per capita income of US $36,000. Further, Mumbai and Singapore are both hemmed in by the sea, and their space to grow is constricted. It is also easier to relate to an Asian success story than one further west.
The Maharashtra government has asked a Singapore firm of consultants called Surbana International to submit a report on how Mumbai can become a world class city. The consultants recently submitted their preliminary report.
However, the state government can be faulted, first of all, for providing a wrong brief. This preoccupation with becoming one of the best in the world is nothing short of farcical, considering that Mumbai probably has the highest proportion of slum dwellers - officially put at 55% or nearly 9 million people - of any metropolis in the world. Cynics have often christened it "Slumbai".
Nowadays, state governments and municipalities are far too prone to hiring foreign consultants at the drop of a hat, as the imbroglio over the Commonwealth Games reminds us. These consultants are not necessarily familiar with the local terrain and are apt to provide solutions which do not conform with the situation on the ground. This is precisely what seems to have happened with Surbana International, which was asked to prepare a "Vision Plan" for the city by 2013, to begin with.
Its major thrust, in a section titled "City of Islands", is to call for reclaiming land from the Thane creek which separates the island city from the mainland. The report specifically mentions areas south of Chembur on the east coast and off Uran, on the mainland. As it is, the island city is reckoned to have the highest proportion of reclaimed land of any major city in the world. There were, in the 17th century, when Mumbai passed into British hands from the Portuguese, seven islands which were joined together by reclaiming land from the sea.
The consultants obviously have two objectives in mind. The first is to create more space for the city to grow, mainly for providing more homes, and the second to raise revenues for the "make-over" of the entire city in doing so. However, reclamation will not provide land for the homeless because the cost is so exorbitant that only high-priced real estate can be created there. This is exactly what happened with the controversial reclamation off Backbay, at the southernmost tip of the city, during the 1970s under Chief Minister V P Naik. Today, Cuffe Parade is one of the most expensive addresses in the city, even though the Congress government at the time leased out the land for 99 years to favoured builders at far less than market rates. In other words, the city will remain saddled with slum dwellers, which surely defeats the main purpose of any meaningful scheme to "make over" a city.
Planners now believe that cities ought to be poly-nuclear as far as possible, so that work, housing and other ancillary activities are situated as close to each other, and commuting is minimal.
The extensive reclamation in Backbay has caused severe erosion of the coast further northwards in Mumbai, causing damage to Dr Ambedkar's memorial off Shivaji Park and much further in the suburb of Versova, where several buildings are facing the fury of the sea. The entire hydrology of the creek has to be examined before any reclamation can take place.
An environmentalist from the Observer Research Foundation has pointed out that instead of considering further reclamation, as the Maharashtra government is doing, it should begin utilizing available resources in a better manner. The city suffers from an acute imbalance of wealth, with over 80 per cent of its working population engaged in casual employment. The existing Mumbai Metropolitan Region, which includes the twin city across the harbour, ought to be planned more comprehensively, before contemplating reclamation. As it is, the state government is thinking of turning salt pans and tidal flats over for low-income housing, which would be highly detrimental to the city's ecology. During the mega flood of July 26, 2005, it was these areas, along with the mangroves and the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, which served as sponges to absorb some of the torrential downpour.
Chief Minister Ashok Chavan has himself expressed some concerns about the report and asked his officials to study it carefully before giving it the go-ahead. He correctly pointed out that the southern part of the city had stagnated and hence the emphasis ought to be on the northern suburbs. Mumbai's biggest bane is its geography, which forces commuters to travel south to the main central business district in the morning and in the reverse direction every evening. However, the new business district of Bandra-Kurla, just outside the island city, has altered this pattern to some extent.
Surbana has suggested, in a section titled "City of Cities", rejuvenating the existing central business districts; the Parel-Lalbaug redeveloped mill area is poised to turn into one soon. However, in the very same breath, Surbana recommends decongesting them. The very logic of such business districts is a concentration of offices and related activities; how these can be decongested is not easy to visualize. It has suggested that each district be developed along a theme which, again, appears difficult to implement, given the play of market forces and the prices of real estate.
Where the Chief Minister appears to be out on a limb is in suggesting that the metropolitan region, the population of which is estimated to touch 40 million by 2040 - one of the biggest urban agglomerations in the world - ought to be further extended beyond Navi Mumbai to Pune in the southeast and northwards beyond Virar to Nashik. This "multi-modal corridor" runs counter to contemporary thinking on urban planning, because it will further concentrate economic activity in certain belts of the state and neglect others. As it is, Mumbai, Pune and Nashik account for the bulk of the state's economic investment, while areas like Vidarbha and Marathwada to the east suffer from chronic underdevelopment.
Indeed, planners now believe that cities ought to be "poly-nuclear" as far as possible. In other words, each area should be self-contained so that work, housing and other ancillary activities are situated as close to each other, to minimise commuting. As things are, many Mumbaikars spend the equivalent of almost two months every year just driving to their offices and back six days a week. If the Mumbai-Pune-Nashik region is developed as a corridor, this will add to congestion instead of defusing it.
Surbana does propose, in a third section titled "City of Connections", better connectivity with surrounding cities, but this will only benefit a tiny elite of executives who need to travel, not the majority of citizens which is looking for a regular job to begin with. The challenge of creating mass employment and housing in a city like Mumbai is quite unique: perhaps no city in the world - and certainly not Singapore, with just 5 million people, as against 16 million in Greater Mumbai alone - has had to tackle such numbers. Singapore does not have a rural hinterland, from which the rural poor migrate to the city in search of a livelihood. Shanghai resembles Mumbai more closely in terms of population, but its dizzy urban growth does not serve as a model either.
There is a Mumbai Transformation Support Unit which is in charge of the make-over of the city and has engaged these consultants. Apart from the Vision Plan by 2013, Surbana is entrusted with plans for the urban agglomeration of the metropolitan region by 2020 as well as a grand $60 billion Action Plan. These are high-sounding objectives but even as officials and experts have expressed caution at the very outset, it would only be in the fitness of things if the state government made these plans public and invited comments before going ahead with anything.
There was no mention by anyone at the presentation of creating jobs, which is the single biggest need of Mumbai and every other city in the country. Housing, education, health and transport will follow, once people are gainfully employed.