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Mumbai suburbs need to break off

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Last updated on: August 04, 2005 13:20 IST

As Mumbai reels under a tragedy more human than natural in dimension, my thoughts go to an ennobling epic from India's hoary past, the Ramayana. Not to seek divine intervention in mitigating a disaster of our making, but to recall an important lesson in statecraft.

The king, the poet tells us, traveled among his subjects incognito, mingling with them as a commoner, in an attempt to find out what ails his people. Sure, the ruler's court was always accessible, but this way the king had a first-hand account of how his subjects fared in his reign. By no means was this an unheard-of practice; those who desired to be good rulers often did this. No wonder they were lauded in poetry.

Our present-day rulers, instead, barricade themselves from the very people who elect them to office, and become the subjects of limericks and SMS jokes. Like Cicero, one is forced to bemoan: O tempora, O mores!

If Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh were to move about as a commoner -- and not in the full regalia of his office -- among his people he would be surprised to discover the extent of revulsion at the lack of administration he provides. If a leader is someone who is visible in times of crisis, the chief minister of one of India's wealthiest states is conspicuous by his absence.

Why the Deshmukh govt failed

The tragedy is by no means restricted to Mumbai, the first among equals. Vast parts of coastal Maharashtra have been ravaged in the torrent, and deserve attention. But Mumbai is not merely another Maharashtrian city; it is also a showpiece of India, and its woes reflect on the country. If its airport shuts down, as it did in this downpour, it sends out a message across the world. That's the price to be paid for being an international city. Often, it seems unfair to other cities that may labour under similar, or worse, problems. Other cities, in comparison, end up as mere wannabes.

And because Mumbai's woes are unique, it demands unique solutions. A common suggestion has been to treat the city as a separate administrative unit from Maharashtra, and was touted recently by architect Charles Correa. But this is an old line, that Mumbai needs to govern itself since it is a major contributor to the central revenue pool while it gets a meager amount out of that pool for its upkeep. Perhaps 10 years ago that could have been the solution; to meet today's unique problems, nothing less than dividing Mumbai into two will do. It is the same argument held out by Correa and the others, taken to its logical conclusion.

Think about it. There are already two Mumbais in existence: South Mumbai, which for some strange reason reaches all the way till central Mumbai, and suburban Mumbai. Once upon a time, you could have categorised this divide as that between the haves and have-nots. With the shift in demographics and the exponential development that is going on -- not civic, or administrative, mind you -- suburban Mumbai is in a different orbit and does not look upon itself as a poor cousin anymore.

If anything, there is a tremendous resentment and anger in the suburban swanky highrises at the iniquitous distribution of the city's revenues -- not federal revenues but the civic collections such as property tax for which the suburbs account for the lion's share. And yet, when it comes to spending that money, it is south Mumbai that walks away with the bride.

Despite the money it turns over to the city's coffers, despite boasting of better amenities, the suburbs are treated with civic and administrative apathy. Squalid and inferior roads that give way in the monsoon's first flush are the norm. Nothing describes this official disparity than my little daughter's comment on visiting Marine Drive once: 'Dad, how come this part of Mumbai is so clean and where we live so dirty? We don't pay any tax?' We do, I had to explain to her, it is our money that keeps this part of the city the way it is.

'When will we get clean water?'

This morning's newspaper tells us that despite the suburbs having a larger population, and larger geographical area, the bulk of the city's constabulary are posted in South Mumbai, which was one reason the men in uniform were nowhere to be seen when the skies opened up last week. There simply were not enough cops in the drowning suburbs, while the bulk of them were twiddling their thumbs nearby in a region that did not experience nature's fury.

The gripe from the suburbs is that if such a calamity that befell the suburbs this last one week (is God too a townie? Why else would south Mumbai have been spared?) happened in that part of town, it would have been declared a national calamity. And the only reason Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh has got away with his trademark smugness is that for officialdom, the suburbs are out of sight and hence out of mind.

Get angry, dammit and stay so

There is a divide already in people's minds. Townies don't give a damn for the suburbs and wouldn't cross over bar an emergency; and, the suburbanites reciprocate the sentiment in full measure. There is already a division of sorts in place, or call it a recognition that the city is too vast to be dealt with from one point, between the Mumbai Collectorate and Mumbai Suburban.

The throbbing suburbs of Mumbai cry out for a better deal, and its destiny cannot be decided in a part of town that scarcely has any concern for it. The viable solution is to bifurcate the city into two civic administrative units, Mumbai City and Mumbai Suburbs, each with its own municipal corporation that will raise money from, and spend, within its jurisdiction.

For the sake of a level playing field, the state assembly and the administrative headquarters, housed in Mantralaya in South Mumbai, need to divide their time between the city and the suburbs. That is one way the elected representatives will go to the people.

Terrible Tuesday: Mumbai copes with a calamity

The kings of yore did not need to be urged to live as one among their subjects to know their woes, they were genuinely interested in providing an able administration, one that cared for the people. Today's rulers, despite drawing their mandate from the people, have no concern for their welfare, and need to be prodded into acting.

What do you think? Mail me your thoughts to

Saisuresh Sivaswamy