Tag Archives: Mumbai

‘Mumbai is on the verge of imploding’

Residents of this overburdened and polluted megacity are held hostage by a politician-builder nexus that allows rampant ‘development’ to fuel its descent into urban hell

Consider these statistics. Rubbish could be its Mount Vesuvius. Some 7,000 metric tonnes of refuse is spewed out each day. Dumping grounds are choked, yet there is no government-mandated separation or recycling.

Around 7.5 million commuters cram themselves into local trains every day and the fledgling metro and monorail are unlikely to make a perceptible difference in the near future.

There are 700,000 cars on the road and the authorities indirectly encourage private vehicle ownership by adding flyovers and expressways, instead of building or speeding up mass rapid transit systems. Private vehicle numbers have grown by 57% in the past eight years, compared with a 23% increase in public buses.

Toxic nitric oxide and nitrogen oxide levels stand at 252 microgrammes per cubic metre (mcg/m3) more than three times the safe limit of 80 mcg/m3. Protests against sound pollution fall on deaf ears.

There’s less than 0.03 acres of open space per 1,000 people. The global norm is four; London has a profligate 12.

There are 12.7 million people jammed into the 480 sq km that comprise today’s Greater Mumbai, that’s 20,680 people per sq km. We are the world’s eighth most-populated city – and dying to prove it.

As a consequence, every sixth Mumbaikar lives in a slum. The premium on land was exacerbated by the Rent Control Act of 1947, which wasn’t amended till 1999. Too little, too late. Real estate prices are unreal. It’s cheaper to buy a flat in Manhattan than in Malabar Hill, and you can be sure that shoddy materials will shortchange you in Mumbai.

Considering that housing is the city’s biggest shortfall, it’s ironic that unbridled construction is indisputably its biggest problem. Many villains have been blamed for Mumbai’s descent into urban hell, from mafia dons to impoverished migrants, but for the past three decades the main culprit is the “politician-builder nexus”. 

In 2005, the entire city was held hostage for three days. On 26 July, suburban Mumbai was lashed by 668 mm of rain in just 12 hours. Unwarned commuters and children in school buses were left high, but not dry, as roads and railway tracks disappeared. Slums and BMWs went under the deluge without discernment for their economic standing. It may have been the country’s financial capital, but in the photographs that followed, swaggering Mumbai didn’t look much different from a monsoon-marooned Bihar village.

For this humbling disaster, the finger pointed at that same culprit: the developer and his facilitator, the politician. There was nowhere for the rainwater to go. For decades the concrete army had been allowed to commandeer all open spaces, and illegal encroachments had done the rest. Public parks, verdant hills, salt-pans, school compounds, private garden plots, beaches, mangroves – nothing was spared.