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Mumbai's manic makeover

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January 18, 2005 15:54 IST

Every morning as I come into work I pass by one of Mumbai's arterial roads. It's a 3-lane motorway at most places, and for the last few weeks I have seen expansion work going ahead, as if working to a deadline which if you have lived in the city long enough is never the case.

They have moved in the heavy artillery for the purpose. Machines the dimensions of which one has only imagined crush rocks into road-sized pebbles in one corner while another gargantuan gizmo reduces them further in size. There are earthmovers across terra firma, pounding away at hillocks that dot the way. When the whole exercise is finished, the motorway will expand to 7 lanes on each side, and will ferry the incoming traffic much quicker so they can create a greater bottleneck at the city's entry points.

But the road widening has its share of problems. There are hutments in some parts, with actual people living in them; I have seen them there for as long as I can remember. As the various shelters housing various things: a potter who expands into the shoulder of the road during the busy Ganpati season. A nursery. And various shops and structures.

I have always wondered what will happen to them, where they will go when the machinery finally descends on them. They cannot possibly be owning alternative homes, their children must be among the clean and scrubbed school children I see every day heading to the nearby civic school, the man of the house possibly an early morning squatter by the wayside. Where will they go, what will they do?

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It's easy to shrug off such depressing thoughts with a placebo like 'there but for the grace of god go I', but when you see the landscape altering inch by inch everyday before your eyes and you know actual people have been shunted out to make that room, somehow the beautification of Mumbai to which one is so passionately committed loses its appeal.

When the poet Subramaniya Bharati spoke of his vision of free India he wrote, We will raze the world if one lone man has no food to eat. That was the scale of progress a new India was expected to provide her sons. Today, as we move men and mountains in our zeal to transform India's most treasured city into another Shanghai, maybe we should pause a bit and ask ourselves if such hurried transformation will harm Mumbai's quintessence more than it will enhance it.

The question no more is, does Mumbai need a makeover? After decades of apathy and greed that ensured the goose that lay golden eggs was systematically kept in a state of ill-health, everyone is agreed the solution needs to be drastic. There is little time to waste if the city were to not go down the ranks of failed metros.

Having said that, the current pace of makeover that is steaming through the city's roads, even while guaranteed to alter the city's topography like never before, will also strike at the city's basic character.

The City of Dreams that has so far drawn millions of immigrants from all over the country into its welcoming fold, will turn cold by the time its transformation takes place. This is the city where you can land up with nothing in your bag but aspirations, and become king. Ask an Amitabh Bachchan, or a Shah Rukh Khan. This is the city where you don't have to be born here to belong. Mumbai is yours, mine, his, hers, everyone's.

This welcome, inclusiveness, and its power to transform one's wildest dreams into reality, is what keeps the incoming trains packed. Sure, they are mostly homeless, will exert a pressure on the creaking infrastructure, add to the filth and chaos. Not all of them come here because there is nothing worthwhile back home; most often they give up everything to struggle and make it here.

Mumbai thus belongs to both the rich and the poor, both contributing to make the city what it is. You can debate whose contribution is greater, but that would be on the lines of various body organs arguing which had a greater role among them. The brain? The heart? The eyes? The ears? All argument ceased when the unsung rectum stopped work.

Those who are being put to sword in front of the demolition squads are not vermin living off the city; they may live in grime, may have entered the city after the magic cut-off date from which the poor have no legal status, but nevertheless are as much part of the city's topography as the rest of us, have as much right to the city's bounty as any one of us.

Everyone knows how totalitarian China goes about its tasks, so even the constant harping by the establishment to make the city into another Shanghai is misplaced. Mumbai's problems are unique -- the unchecked influx being just one -- and the solutions need to be unique as well.

There is more to it than widening roads and demolishing shanties, the present plans don't address issues like instilling civic sense among the millions, improving their quality of life, ignores the obvious discrimination against suburbs over the inner city, developing hubs as a counterpoint to the business district, replacing slums with regular tenements, improving conservancy.

One could go on, but for a city to be revived, what is needed is a carry-all approach, not piecemeal. A city is made up by its people, their unbroken spirit, not just wide vistas and glass facades. Turn them away, and you will have a shell standing. Is that what we who endlessly profess love for Mumbai want of the city that made us?

Saisuresh Sivaswamy