Mumbai is where I enjoyed the last blissful years of college life and it is where I cut my teeth in journalism. I was on the crime beat as a young reporter, which meant I got to know even those areas of the great city which most people, even native Mumbaikars, rarely get to see.
In those days -- and I am talking about a time almost 45 years ago -- it took me barely half an hour to get from the airport to Colaba. On my last trip to the city the same distance required an hour-and-a-half, but I didn't fret or fume because over the years I have gradually accepted that slow-moving traffic, even the occasional gridlock, is a way of life in Mumbai.
The prime minister lauded the spirit of Mumbai, the manner in which the city began to struggle back to life after the deluge of July 26. But now I cannot help wondering whether the renowned 'stoicism' of the Mumbaikar isn't actually a polite way of saying 'apathy'.
I can't say that I love Delhi even after four decades in the place but I must admit that the quality of life is far better than the cramped quarters and crowded roads of India's financial capital. So why on earth are Mumbaikars putting up with all this rubbish?
Consider, for instance, the lethargy with which the chief minister of Maharashtra conducted himself in the wake of the deluge. It took Vilasrao Deshmukh all of 48 hours before his entourage drove to the Air-India Colony in Kalina. It took him a week before his limousine glided through Badlapur in Thane. (Everyone who complains about the time it takes to get to south Mumbai from the airport is in good company, see how long it took the chief minister to reach the suburbs from Montreal!)
Amazingly, Vilasrao Deshmukh did find time enough in his busy schedule to play a little politics. On July 30, just four days after the fury of the Monsoon hit Maharashtra, the chief minister was busy staging a ceremony to invite Narayan Rane into his council of ministers. (Nobody asked how Rane, a Shiv Sainik back when he himself was chief minister, had suddenly lost the "communal" taint. I suppose even that was washed away by the rains!)
In an effort to prove how valuable an asset he is to the government of Maharashtra, the new revenue minister's first major announcement was a threat to arrest Reliance Energy officials if they didn't restore electricity within 24 hours.
It is possible that I am being too hasty in judging Shri Rane. I am sure there are several Mumbaikars who might like to throw the book at the electricity people. But what about the government officials who presided over the clogged drains, the shoddy roads, and the generally pathetic infrastructure? Why is it that a Marine Drive built by the British survived half a century without being relaid while the Mumbai roads of today don't survive the next monsoon?
Shouldn't the nexus of builders, civil servants, and politicians who have made such a pig's breakfast of Mumbai's infrastructure also be jailed? I have very little hope, however, that anyone is going to be pulled up. Do you remember the massive earthquake that rocked Gujarat on January 26, 2001? Several modern houses tumbled like a house of cards where centuries-old structures survived. There was much talk then of punishing the builders to the full extent of the law. Four-and-a-half years later, how many people can you name who have been punished?
With that unhappy precedent in mind, there is little hope that any major reforms will be carried out.
Mumbai is seen as nothing but a cash-cow by almost everyone who is responsible for the administration of the city. A single appalling statistic says it all: Mumbai is the single largest contributor to Government of India revenues, offering over Rs 50,000 crore by way of taxes but it gets back less than 1per cent to improve its infrastructure.
And the politicians and bureaucrats get away with it because they are not answerable to Mumbaikars anyway. Think about it, most of the Maharashtra Vidhan Sabha is elected by people living well outside the city limits of Mumbai. They don't give a damn whether Mumbaikars resent them or not because it won't be Mumbaikars who re-elect them.
The city sends only six members to the Lok Sabha, a voice that is effectively drowned out in a House with a strength of 543. The municipal corporation and the police are the preserve of bureaucrats rather than elected officials -- and they may be from any state. The Mayor of Mumbai and its Sherrif hold largely ceremonial posts. Effectively, none of them has a real stake in
Small wonder then that the builder lobby has been allowed to do what they like. How many people going up and down its air-conditioned elevators know that Nariman Point was originally supposed to provide more lungs to the city rather than concrete skyscrapers? (I admire the sheer cheek of the land mafia which named the place after F S Nariman, a man who made his reputation by battling the land sharks in the 1930s!)
The scandal is not the damage caused by the rains. I doubt if Shanghai or Singapore are any better for a heavenly torrent of the magnitude that overwhelmed Mumbai on July 26. No, the real scandal is the manner in which the city's infrastructure falls apart even in a regular monsoon.
This may sound like a radical solution but has the time come to consider statehood for Mumbai? In terms of population and revenue it dwarfs several Indian states. So why not allow Mumbai to govern itself rather than be treated as a treasury for everyone else? There is no point in talking pious platitudes about giving more powers to local bodies, we all know that it is never going to happen. (Or, at any rate, not soon enough!) Let us cut out all the nonsense and offer Mumbaikars a chance to do something about their infrastructure on their own.
And let us not stop there. Let us extend the same privilege to some other major cities. (Bangalore comes to mind.) If that is too revolutionary a solution for some, can we at least consider moving the capital of Maharashtra elsewhere. (Not Pune!) Dump the ministers and civil servants and lobbyists in some underdeveloped district, and let Mumbai look after itself.