The city of gold must sparkle

A Bollywood actress says something about Mumbai and the Shiv Sena takes the bait but earlier this month, when the Union Government right royally snubbed Mumbai over the Clean City awards, no one even reacted to it.

Navi Mumbai, the Maximum City’s bedroom suburb, was declared the third cleanest city in India in the Swachh Survekshan but Mumbai, ranked 18th overall nationwide in 2018, failed to make it to the top hundred. Ouch! You have been told that your outhouse is cleaner than your bungalow. Even Kangana Ranaut couldn’t have conjured up such an insult.

Now, let’s look at the facts. Navi Mumbai is three-fourths the size of Mumbai but with just one-tenth of its population. Besides, it’s a planned city. Mumbai, given its congestion, is not doing a bad job on the cleanliness front. Having lived Mumbai for nearly half-a-century and in Navi Mumbai for a decade now, I can say with authority that window-dressing, rather than any hard scrubbing, has got the satellite city the ranking.

Mumbai has all it takes to be a beautiful city; the sea and the sandy stretches, the lakes and the lagoons, the hills and the forests, the glitz and the glamour, the moolah and the magic... And unlike other metros, Mumbai comes into its own in the night.

The problem, however, is that the city is unable to project itself.

Take the iconic Marine Drive bay, which just a handful of cities in the world are blessed with. It is supposed to have been beautified with help from a business tycoon but it looks like chrome plating on an antique masterpiece; just as ugly as that man's house. How can one talk of aesthetics when full-grown trees on the Marine Drive promenade were hacked in the name of renovation.

Look at where Marine Drive ends, a concrete jumble of office blocks called Nariman Point, an ugly monument to greed. To make it worse, we squeezed in the Vidhan Bhavan. The government could have learnt from the previous such exercise at creating a Central Business District just 50 years ago, Ballard Estate. Today, this European style office precinct is in neglect; a beautiful pendant waiting for a necklace.

In the same area, D N Road, which leads from the world heritage structure of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus to Flora Fountain, has improved of late, thanks to the efforts of a conservation architect who lobbied to get the Neoclassical and Gothic Revival buildings restored and shrank the signboards on them. Yet, if your gaze falls on the blue plastic raincoats on the domes of the GPO building, the heritage halo of the CSMT precinct dissipates in a flash. We are simply unable to take a holistic view of things.

There was a time when British tourists took a tree tour of the city in tongas. Now, the island city has lost almost all of the pre-Independence era foliage to road widening and digging for the metro; thank God, the maidans are still intact. The replacement trees, fast-growing exotic varieties such the Peltophorum and Gulmohar, have shallow roots and fall like nine pins in monsoon gales. Why, Laburnum Road in Gamdevi, where Mahatma Gandhi lived for ten years in Mani Bhavan, does not have a single laburnum tree.

The biggest spoiler in Mumbai are its narrow and clogged roads. If it has to make an impression, Mumbai must first unclog and then spruce up its highways, central avenues, skywalks and approach roads to railway stations. Wider pedestrian walkways, designated spaces for hawkers, uniformity in street furniture, flower beds, clean public toilets and some quality art installations. Is this too much to ask for?

The streets need a canopy of native flowering trees such as the Indian Laburnum, the Pride of India and the Bauhinia (Kachar), not hoardings blocking the sun. It is a tragedy that no one knows of efforts such as the Bakul avenue created by Dr Ashok Kothari of the BNHS at the SNDT Women's University at Santacruz.

Best Tree/Garden/Avenue awards ought to be instituted in every suburb. Yes, money grows on trees where image-building is concerned. And for God's sake, why can't the richest municipal corporation in India get jet sprays to clean the trees of the dust and the grime. Up to the sixties, even the roads were washed.

A mandatory fresh coat of paint on buildings lining the main avenues will go a long way in changing the drab look of the city.

Mumbai does not sanction the use of the space under flyovers for parking but there is no beautification plan for it. A mention must be made here of the Matunga flyover, under which local residents have created an innovative garden with a schematic model of the Narmada river. Is it too much for the BMC to replicate it? Where are the corporates who have made their trillions from this city?

The municipal corporation of Mumbai does not take beautification seriously because greening the city is not part of its obligatory duties. Likewise, the railways are unconcerned about cleanliness on the tracks and a dash of greenery at local stations. Come to think of it, why can't 'sarkari' buildings, hospitals, police stations etc be incentivised to maintain greenery in their premises.

Mumbai needs to showcase its strengths. It has done precious little to exploit its seafront and to develop water sports. As in the case of D N Road, it took a private citizen to initiate the cleaning of Versova beach. Forget boat rides from coast to coast, we don`t have a marina.

Mangroves are showcased as nature's wonders in other countries with ticketed tours but in Mumbai they are used exclusively for dumping debris, with encroachment in mind. World over, creeks are meant for recreational fishing, boating and water transport; here they are open gutters. The less said the better about Mumbai's five rivers. A beginning of sorts has been made though, by declaring the Airoli mangroves in Navi Mumbai as a flamingo sanctuary.

Despite the negatives, private enterprise and public participation have led to wonderful transformation of small parcels of land. Priyadarshini Park and the Amarsons Garden in South Mumbai, to name two. Who would believe that the garden behind Goregaon's InOrbit mall, as good as any in Singapore, was the Chincholi Bunder dumping ground or that the Jogger's Park and the Bandstand promenade in Bandra were rocky patches abutting the road.

Mumbai, which touts itself as the Urbs Prima in Indis, has just 1.24 sq m of accessible open space per person. It missed a big opportunity to improve the open space to population ratio 15 years ago when the mill lands in Central Mumbai opened up for development. In fact, architect Charles Correa, one of the planners of Navi Mumbai, had envisaged a 5-km green corridor running from Mahalaxmi to Parel, but once again, greed aced good sense.

However, all is not lost. The compactness of Mumbai can be used to its advantage when it comes to beautification. Look at Surat which went from 'badsurat' to 'khoobsurat' in five years. But we must remember to improve slums as well, otherwise the next pandemic will explode in our faces. Purishapuri, or toilet city, is a tag we have worked hard to get rid of.

There is a dire need to re-imagine the city, to harness its amazing energy and to tap its immense wealth but for that we need to think straight, think big and have a grand plan. The sugar belt satraps who rule the state have no such dreams. Now, it is for those who have grown up in Mumbai and for those who grown in Mumbai rather than those who have grown on Mumbai, to give back something to the city.

The Shiv Sena, with its roots in Mumbai and its hold over the municipal corporation, can take it up as their big idea. If it can just forget Kangana and avenge the real insult it will have shown that 'Amchi Mumbai' is more than just a slogan.

The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.

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