Mumbai’s citizens have had to take on a disproportionate share of the responsibility for keeping the city afloat, says Shashi Baliga
Poring over old photographs and lithographs of Mumbai can be an exercise in nostalgia that is as delicious as it is depressing. The pristine grandeur of the Asiatic Library ringed by the classic sweep of Horniman Circle; the palm-fringed curves of Malabar Hill and gentle waves lapping at an unreclaimed coastline; views of Parel with small peaks in the background and a lake glimmering in the sunshine – you envy the artists and photographers who once looked upon these unspoilt scenes.
The city that became Urbs Prima in Indis by reinventing itself needs to reimagine the present if it is not to sink deeper into the morass in which it finds itself
As you move through the decades, you see the bustle of commerce, the crowds and the grime slowly seeping into the landscape. And you wonder: how and when did our city get to the unforgivable state that it has reached now? Old timers everywhere like to lament the changes the city of their youth has suffered, but in Mumbai, the decline has been so sharp in the last two decades that even 20-somethings can get nostalgic about the city of their childhood.
Great cities flourish by reinventing themselves and Mumbai has been through a continuous process of shedding its skin and growing a new one. But the price of growth has been steep. Worse, it has been avoidably steep. Strangled by over-crowding, corruption and pollution, the city is gasping for breath today. We don’t need surveys to tell us that it is one of the worst cities to live in; the very air we breathe and the water we drink remind us of that constantly.
No surprises, then, that official statistics have for some time now, pointed to a decline in Mumbai’s population growth rate. The 2011 census went further and indicated that the population in the island city had seen a drop of close to 6 per cent over a decade. In the heart of the city and its commercial hub, corporations, offices and entrepreneurs have been moving out, either to the suburbs or out of the city itself; the Udipi hotels that once served the workforce are shutting down with an alarming regularity. With commerce fleeing, residents are slowly following suit. Alarm bells are ringing for the core of the city, the spot where it all began. The revised draft Development Plan for the city released earlier this year only confirmed the bad news, noting that Mumbai’s population is in decline and is expected to fall further in the next two decades.
The visible and statistical signs are clear: this is a city whose quality of life is, like its population, on a dangerous downswing.
The good news is that its long-suffering inhabitants have joined hands to fight for the city as never before. There has been a mushrooming of citizen groups, corporations, NGOs and individuals dedicated to causes of various persuasions, all striving to bring about the change they’d like to see. From fighting miscreants and encroachments to cleaning up streets and beaches, volunteering to regulate traffic or saving trees and mangroves, they’re out there, pitching in to save the city.
The redevelopment of the Docklands, a move that has the potential to transform the city as nothing else has in recent times, is a stirring example. While bureaucrats, planners, architects and engineers draw up the grand plans, a host of individuals and citizen groups are chipping away at the challenges that stand between us and the gigantic breath of fresh air that we so desperately need.
Such a large chunk of real estate – app 1,000 acres – is bound to attract commensurately intense attention from quarters desirable and otherwise. The citizens’ lobby wants to extract as much space as it can, while the builder’s lobby will do the same – but for very different reasons. The political wrangling is bound to drag on for some years given the sheer scale of the project, so it looks like we have a long battle on our hands.
Many see it as a battle that could make or break Mumbai. And a rather disproportionate part of winning that war has fallen –in some cases by choice, in others by default – on Mumbai’s citizens. They have, as always, risen to the task, recognising that they now have an incredible chance, perhaps their last big one, to tilt the balance in their favour. And what better way than to do it in the currency that Mumbai understands best: real estate?
Happiness in Mumbai has been, and always will be, about owning your own piece of real estate. Whether it is luxuriating in a penthouse overlooking the Arabian Sea or grabbing those precious square feet to rest your butt on in the 9.13 to Churchgate, the struggle to get that patch of your own, keep it safe and enjoy it is in a Mumbaikar’s genes. Some things don’t change.
But some have to – and quickly, before it is too late. The city that became Urbs Prima in Indis by constantly reinventing itself needs to reimaging the present if it is not to sink deeper into the morass in which it finds itself. Some will argue that the city has already reached the tipping point and the all-round decline cannot be stemmed. But Mumbaikars live on hope and a feral tenacity – what choice do they have really – and they just might turn things around.