What is that one thing that stands out as being offered by Mumbai? Not just that it has been the muse for many creative individuals. Not just the economic opportunities that it has demonstrated for decades. It is actually - anonymity. That is the underlying theme of the city.
One need not worry about who is your neighbour. Most often we don’t. The average Mumbaikar spends more time on commuting and work, and not in knowing their neighbours. Be it in their residential area or during their commute in the public transport. And yet, they would smile at their neighbour with an all-knowing nod. And it is precisely why its citizens like it more, for it allows them to just be. No pretences are needed. No show offs needed to survive. Just be anonymous.
Over the decades, various books and movies have been made in painting the picture of Mumbai as a land of romance and glamour. Mumbai, the city that never sleeps. It is precisely this city that houses millions of residents that has seen both civic decay and citizenry apathy, over the years. For the maximum city seems to have minimum social-civic infrastructure. And we seem to forget that Mumbai is actually vast and not just South Mumbai.
Mumbai city has a huge challenge of decaying civic infrastructure for all the grit and determination that its citizens demonstrate. Let’s think of the roads. Sorry, for they exist in some parts and patches. We have more potholes and yet we bear the painful brunt and probably can boast of more slip-discs-per-capita than any other Indian city! Be it the crowded trains that are overloaded, for that’s the only affordable respite of a commute for millions of its citizens. Whether one is in a private luxury car or public road transportation, there is no escaping the traffic jams with noise & emission pollution to boot. Bad roads make for a lowered quality of living. Yet the citizens hold onto their Chalta Hai attitude. The very phrase has got us stuck here. Stuck with 20th century civic amenities. Resilience is a good city trait to have. But demanding higher standards of city services is also a character that we need to have.
It is indeed appalling that over the years Mumbai civic infrastructure has got messy. In the din of daily running around for a living, its citizens just did not stand up for their civic rights. Just ask yourself and your friends this – do you even know whom to approach for a potholed road to be fixed or a public toilet to be cleaned or a mosquito fogging drive to be done? Or even importantly, do you even know the name of your local ward and ward Corporator? Of course, even if you did, would you turn up for a conversation with them? And who guarantees that those officials will actually do their job?
Yet we see a city of contradictions. Various 21st century infrastructure plans have been announced. Be it bullet train, coastal road and what not. Yes, and retrofits to our older structures are happening in bits and bricks. Yet the basic quality of an acceptable road condition and other key amenities are still a struggle. Luckily we have the monsoons to blame for it. Thanks to nature, we have a reason every year.
For a nation that we are, whose scientific and engineering prowess is accepted globally, we can’t seem to get our city roads right. Probably some author will pen the “Ode to Mumbai roads”.
The rude shock and awakening that Mumbai faces ahead is citizen literacy from a different source. The digital streaming videos and video apps with movies and serials shot in smaller cities and towns showcase what Mumbaikars miss – the basic social infrastructure – gardens, parks, footpaths, roads, clean public toilets, hygienic public hospitals, public spaces for arts and culture and entertainment and so on. For all the claims about Swachh Bharat and Mumbai’s performance, we still have overflowing garbage dumps in residential areas. We also have non-functional street-lights, missing or misplaced road signs. To add to the colours of the city, we have hoardings & posters - more of political nature - which violate our sense of city aesthetics. But does anyone even bother to get those removed? One need not travel abroad to see what we miss back home in our own Mumbai. A Netflix Indian serial is good enough to show us the mirror. Let us not romanticise what we don’t have.
Mumbaikars that we are, we feel for other societies and nations where social injustice is seen or where some developmental agenda has been delayed. We vent and rant on social media. Oh yes. That armchair social media commentators that we have all become. (Even if we don’t have an armchair and we are glued to 5 other co-passengers in a crowded local). Yet asking any of us to discuss with your local civic officials for redressal seems a tough task. From a public accountability point of view, why should the citizens even complain? Can’t those whose duty is to keep the city in good condition perform their role without any reminders or requests?
Let us look at what all we have missed. Diamond skilled trade seems to have moved a lot of its actual economic work out of Mumbai. Same was with textiles a long time ago. Same has happened with the overall startup community. The city is just too expensive, too messy and does not attract human capital to move in. If Mumbai wants to be a city of the future, we need to move from being glued to our past glory and build our own future city. Let us not get carried away from the glamorous skyscrapers coming up. What about those people who earn their living in making life better for those skyscraper residents? Can we also start caring about what this city offers those blue collared and white collared citizens? Can we start caring about our children and senior citizens? Can we make space in every locality for them? Can we achieve these with less pollution and more care for Nature? Can we make an inclusive society and not just an expensive and ageing one?
If we have to attract more entrepreneurs to Mumbai, and importantly for those already here to stay, we have to make it a city of the future. What is the Vision for Mumbai? What are the Values that this city can offer its inhabitants? This is again where the polity & policy makers have to get their act right. Their capability and execution competence need not be proven. Covid relief work was a classic example of such an ability. They just have to get the intent and urgency together, with accountability and transparency.
A simple monthly update on various projects municipal-ward-wise will be a good education by itself for the citizens. After all, it is with their taxes that the municipality operates. And it has the complex web of multiple departments responsible for different functions. Imagine this like a large company run by 7 Co-CEOs (each running a different division). Try an RTI to get an answer and you might receive multiple responses because your query about a certain function might be linked to 3-4 departments. That’s some maze to decipher.
History has shown repeatedly that even empires and kingdoms lost influence if they did not provide better social economic means and benefits to its citizens. If we don’t create adequate, relevant, social-civic infrastructure, we will become a city of haves versus have-nots. That’s something we don’t want. We also don’t want to become just a ghost city with jaded memories of good old times and clutching haplessly onto just romantic notions. We can’t afford the end of the road, yet. Well, it’s time to wake up.
Srinath Sridharan is a corporate advisor and Independent markets commentator. His Twitter handle is @ssmumbai