Mumbai – city of despair and repairs

Time and again excuses have been given, timelines delayed and budgets increased, but with no cheer for the city

Srinath SridharanUpdated: Tuesday, January 24, 2023, 11:11 PM IST
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Mumbai is a sensitive topic, evoking sharp reactions and divisive jingoism. Many residents hold fast a romantic notion of remembering 1970s and 1980s Hindi songs that glamourised the then-Bombay.

As residents, we have grown up with the famously popular, deprecating “Chalta hai” attitude that is both fashionably wrong and does not serve us at all. Remember the saying, the crying baby gets the milk? This city has never cried for its dues — of proper infrastructure. In the process, it has bought the silence of its citizens. It has allowed for encroachments all over and yet brought in legitimacy to those lapses. For example, slums being formed as encroachments initially are eventually legitimised by regulations. Any citizen trying to complain at grassroots level for any public nuisance or civic issues has to face the challenge of being used like a football between multiple stakeholders, and probably even invite the displeasure of local influentials.

Yes, there are newer infrastructural projects happening around Mumbai — much needed, but with slower execution than we are technologically and humanly capable of. Mumbai desperately needs upgrades. Time and again excuses have been given, timelines delayed and budgets increased, but with no cheer for the city. Do we have a plan to shape the liveability aspect of Mumbai but without making the citizens feel as if it’s a political or policy favour to them?

Building civic infrastructure to a long-term plan

Have a Vision 2030 for Mumbai for all, and work in executing the civic upgrades to a time and cost plan. The plan should be for the population size and mix expected post the year 2030. Can we have a unified interface between all Government departments that interact with one another? Only such a possibility can assure maximum governance with minimum nuisance. This city has been tolerating roads being dug up by one department or private entity, only to be re-dug within days or weeks by another department. For the public’s sake, start using digital technologies to make multiple-department projects seamless. Why can’t large diameter pipes be laid across the city to act as a service duct? Any private or public sector public-services entity can use them by paying an access fee and it would avoid the need for digging up roads repeatedly. This is not a new idea, it is rehashed from 50 years ago!

Improve public transportation

While we have many upcoming transportation projects including metro connectivity, coastal road, etc, we need to work in building integrated multimodal public transportation. This plan should be able to measure current and expected public benefit in reducing traffic jams, pollution, travel time, and public stress.

Each mode of transport has to intersect with another and give transferability to passengers to move around the metropolis. We cannot have the union-controlled autorickshaws and taxis playing god as they currently do. In each of the public transport stations (bus stops, railways stations, metro stations, etc), can’t we build good public toilets? This would solve for the public need. These toilets can be outsourced to private agencies for upkeep. The only way to improve public health is to improve access to sanitation very quickly.

Have open spaces, gardens and parks

While we crib that the city has sold its soul and open spaces to the developers, we have to hold on to what we now have. If there is political will, we could even create newer open spaces like New York did with Central Park a century ago.

Our gardens are a statement of how this city thinks of its citizens — of being bestowed a favour. We need regular upkeep of the city gardens and parks, and encroachments and unruly elements need to be kept out. We often find these public properties littered with encroachments and posters of politics or philosophy or some local religious celebration.

Footpaths & hawkers

Most of us don’t even understand the word “footpath”. Even if they do exist, they seem to be for the benefit of illegal hawkers, and a strategic place for political posters and shops that spring out of nowhere but with local patronage. In many places, footpaths are nothing but broken road surface. Would it not be possible to remove all encroachments and vendors from non-hawker zones and remove the hoardings and posters that deface the city? There is a need for political will, as a majority of these illegal banners are those of politicians. Yet everyone will act as if someone else will clear the mess.

For a city that boasts coastal line and islandic water(ways), we don’t have walking trails around it. Even a small city nation like Singapore has converted its inland waterfront into a popular (and employment-generating and revenue-generating) hangout spot, Clarke Quay. Our state leaders have promised to overtake Singapore and Shanghai in the infrastructure space but for a city that has maximum tax collections in the country, it cannot even make space for its pedestrians.

Pollution

But for the sea breeze that it’s naturally blessed with, Mumbai would be choking on air pollution. We need to understand that pollution reduces all liveability indices. The most ignored one is noise, which we are silent about. Noise pollution adds to the daily stress that this city inhabitants go through. Yet there is little action about curbing loud speakers. Somewhere in our Indian psyche, we seem to associate loud noise of any kind with celebrations. Is noise the democratic currency for celebrations?

Mumbai has a challenge for being a land-locked city that keeps adding more vehicles on its roads. Add to this the construction work. No doubt that air pollution will increase. One of the alleviating factors could be the public shift to public transportation to ease reduction in vehicular emission pollution. This necessitates ease of travel, and last mile connectivity. For a city that gets battered by rains for 3-4 months every year, we need to have adequate walking tracks.

Can’t we add noise level sensors in our traffic cameras to check noise pollution? Can’t we install air pollution and noise pollution monitors on our street lights as a measure? Water pollution is another aspect that we need to work upon urgently. And we need to do more on rain water harvesting by building under-road storage tanks.

Traffic discipline

Traffic rules seem to be long forgotten. We have rules, but almost no checking on those. Indisciplined driving, rash driving, constant honking, blatant breaking of traffic and parking rules are a very real menace. Sufficient use of technology can reduce the load on police manpower required to check these infractions. The constantly decreasing average speed on the Mumbai roads is yet another indicator that we need sharper traffic management, along with public transportation adoption. We should leverage technology to use sensors across city roads to adjust traffic signals automatically to maintain decent average traffic speed.

We are a city that’s choking at its sides too. Illegally parked vehicles almost all along the forgotten pavements reduce actual driveable road space. People seem to have lakhs and crores of rupees to buy their dream house. But yet they blatantly park their vehicles on the road in their locality. What would it take to have a zero-tolerance view on such nuisance?

Civic repair timings

Many of cities globally work on their civic repairs and maintenance work in the night, when traffic is minimal. Can Mumbai take a leaf from this and actually do all its civic amenity work — be it road laying or digging up pipelines or pothole fixing — during the night time? While there might be increased wage cost due to such a move, it would be offset by the reduced traffic snarls and reduced fuel expenses, and irritation to the city residents.

City in a hurry

Let us simply say that Mumbai does not face any issues of corruption across its city life. Almost every stakeholder claims to be holier than thou, and the sufferer is this city and its citizens. A wise counsel, when asked recently if one should plan of continuing to live in Mumbai replied, “Think of it as F&O stock — ask yourself if Mumbai city has a Future and assess if it has better Option than other cities.”

One should remember that history has never been kind to those who did not generate citizenry happiness or public goodwill using infrastructural development for social development. One would be surprised if many of the decision-makers even have walked around the bylanes of this metropolis across its suburbs, or recently taken public transportation for non-photo-op reasons.

Sad but a city that once attracted various segments of population is today a rapidly disintegrating cosmos of richness and poverty alike, with crumbling edifices and a newer skyline that is just more exclusive, and with few sparks of civic construction here and there. Don’t we have even one political leader or bureaucrat whose heart bleeds for Mumbai?

In the past in public governance, if accountability did not bring results, a sense of shame used to work. Now?

Dr Srinath Sridharan is a corporate adviser and author of Time for Bharat. He tweets @ssmumbai

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