I grew up in Pune, once called the pensioners’ paradise because of its slumberous pace and easy life; leafy boulevards, small bespoke but unpretentious bungalows, predominantly middle-class society, several small restaurants serving traditional Maharashtrian sabudana vadas and shrikhand, with large school playgrounds and public spaces interspersed across the city. And the weather, perennially pleasant (in summers we rarely used the ceiling fan) was enviable. Bombay, as it was then called, was for us Punekars like the big bully, a nasty cousin indulging in braggadocio about its meretricious ways; all flash and dazzle. Most Punekars would take the Deccan Queen train to work or visit Mumbai, but invariably return the same night. It was better to return to Pune’s salubrious surroundings after a three and a half-hour train journey through the charming Lonavala-Khandala ghats than spend the night in Mumbai’s insufferable, maddening, sultry cauldron (probably in a cramped room) in the night. As the coronavirus cases rise alarmingly in what has been known as India’s cosmopolitan hotspot, those early perceptions of Mumbai being a crumbling urban infrastructure is playing to script. It saddens me. In 1992, I moved to Mumbai from Delhi and fell in love with Maximum City; besides the unmatched night-life (Citibank coined the term, The Citi That Never Sleeps, in a clever wordplay), I was delighted with the disciplined traffic (despite 24 lakh vehicles on its narrow arterial roads), sea breeze, charming restaurants, and the fact that the metropolis was so woman-friendly. I write this piece as a hard-core Mumbaikar; Mumbai must find its mojo soon. It will not be easy.
The latest data as of 25th June 2020 manifest that Mumbai has maximum cases (69,625) and death toll (3962) and potentially remains susceptible to both community transmission and a second resurgence of the virus. Albeit many have trashed the current government for a ham-handed response to the medical emergency, the fact is that India’s commercial and entertainment capital was always disconcertingly susceptible to the coronavirus. While everyone focuses on Asia’s largest slum Dharavi, we forget that approximately 42% of the city survives in the wretched slums. And the rest live in crowded apartments in tall skyscrapers with congested elevators that ensure that social distancing is mostly a fanciful proposition. Others live in dilapidated chawls, many on the verge of an imminent collapse, owing to their frangible foundations. Many of its occupants are the poor migrants who comprise 37% of the city’s population. Even the more affluent big-boys must necessarily engage with several neighbours as the city’s real estate has a claustrophobic confine that is hard to break free from. In short, the density of population (73000 people per square mile) makes Mumbai a sitting duck. Sadly, there is no instant panacea for this historical baggage. All political parties, those who have administered the state government (Congress, BJP, NCP, Shiv Sena) and the local Bombay Municipal Corporation are equally responsible for the sordid mess. I need to be politically agnostic here (I have always seen myself as a proud citizen of Mumbai first); the city has been grievously let-down by its unscrupulous politicians many of them who have exploited its precious real estate through sleazy kickbacks permitting ugly mutations rising tall into the skies. Burgeoning growth becomes a flimsy pretext to cut deals that ultimately result in self-aggrandisement at the cost of the common man. Everyone is guilty, no exceptions whatsoever. The coronavirus is having a field day in the city because of the past wilful skulduggery of its political stalwarts. The common persons of Mumbai are its tragic victims today.
In the early 1990s the Mumbai versus Delhi debate was a popular topic for animated discussions between city die-hards, and Mumbai beat the national capital (aggressive anti-woman behaviour, high crime rates, indisciplined traffic, absence of corporate investments, and a regressive sarkari lethargy) hands down. Today Delhi (despite still being a city with several blemishes of the past still a raging problem) has moved several decades ahead in urban infrastructure, housing and transport systems. The proximity to the new business hub of glitzy Gurgaon has helped Delhi decongest, giving it a temporary respite. But as the coronavirus cases in Delhi show, the city, like Mumbai, appears to be incinerated by the pathogen’s spread. Mumbai unlike Delhi has not even had a momentary break from its breakneck concrete material expansion; thus its situation stands further exacerbated.
Change ultimately must come from the people of this great city; we contribute a staggering 6% to India’s GDP and about 33% to tax revenues (courtesy registered offices headquartered in the island city). Mumbai needs a CEO with executive powers. It has to run on the New York model of governance; transparent, professional, citizen- and tourist-friendly and a magnet for foreign investment. It is appalling to note that the proposed international financial services centre is being shifted to Gujarat instead of a city whose erstwhile name Bombay is a global brand. How did such a bizarre decision get an official imprimatur?
Mumbai does not need to become a Shanghai. Mumbai just needs to find its soul. It must. It must dump political rhetoric and the bombastic nonsense it is frequently subjected to and only listen to those who can hear its heartbeat.
The writer is a Congressman and former national spokesperson. Views are his own.