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What Quality of Life in Our Cities?

In the haste to convert Mumbai into a world class city we have failed to study the experiences of western cities, which are suffering from the ill-effects of rampant privatisation and foreign partnership in public services, notably transport. Our cities need to focus more on providing basic amenities than in chasing dreams of becoming world class.

COMMENTARY

What Quality of Life in Our Cities?

Vidyadhar Date

leisure facilities, entertainment centres, schools, colleges, universities, sports clubs and hospitals accessible to expatriates, he says . We are left in no doubt that the new infrastructure will be and should be for the upper class. The author adds that the city needs cultural tolerance and plural-

In the haste to convert Mumbai into a world class city we have failed to study the experiences of western cities, which are suffering from the ill-effects of rampant privatisation and foreign partnership in public services, notably transport. Our cities need to focus more on providing basic amenities than in chasing dreams of becoming world class.

Vidyadhar Date (datebandra@yahoo.com) writes on issues of concern to the citizen.

Economic & Political Weekly december 15, 2007

G
ieve Patel, a Mumbai-based painter, poet and medical doctor, has been conducting poetry workshops for students of the Rishi Valley school in Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh, for the last 10 years, reading to them from Shakespeare, Dante and of late even love poetry.

One is struck by the contradiction that this involves. Here is a poet from Mumbai, going all the way to Chittoor, to talk with privileged children on a large campus. I thought of a municipal school in Mumbai, very close to the municipal head office, that does not have a separate toilet for girls due to which many of them have simply stopped going to school. Malnutrition deaths have been widely reported among children of the few surviving adivasis in the lush Aarey milk colony area in Mumbai recently. The area has been taken over by builders for luxury residential buildings and a golf course after evicting the original residents, the adivasis.

Such contradictions are going to sharpen in the coming days. And those with visions of Mumbai as a world class city and international financial centre (IFC) are not apologetic about it. Percy Mistry, head of the high powered expert committee set up by the union finance ministry on making Mumbai into such a centre, wrote recently that by its very nature such a centre is elitist. He admitted that this was a politically incorrect statement in the Indian ethos (Business Standard, September 2, 2007). The city needs top class residential and ism and cannot tolerate a bandh.

The trouble is that it is the new form of development which is anti-plural and intolerant of ordinary citizens. The distortion is most obvious in the fancy Hiranandani complex at Powai in Mumbai where the poor have no visibility except as domestic servants, construction workers or messengers to various offices. I was recently searching for the Prudential building that houses the Crossword bookshop. I asked half a dozen people on the streets. None had the vaguest idea because they were also visitors like me. I did not encounter a single local resident since most of them are motorists who do not walk on the road. Indeed some of the so-called world class cities are becoming extremely distorted, unequal. London now resembles more and more the deeply unequal city that Engels, so powerfully depicted in the 1840s as the Guardian reported recently (‘Urban Britain Heading for Victorian Levels of Inequality’, July 18, 2007). Beneath the helipads there lurks a growing cityscape of poverty and exploitation. A recent report by the Joseph Rountree Foundation on social segregation in Britain highlights the nature of cities which are designed to conceal from the eyes of the wealthy the human cost of their riches.

Learning from Others

Even London is finding it tough to remain competitive in the new economy. And can there be a more prominent name among world class cities and international financial centres than London?

COMMENTARY

Heathrow airport, the busiest in the world, is now universally coming under attack from all sections for its poor service. It is failing to deliver though it is not only privatised but is being run by a foreign group, a Spanish construction company Ferovial. Britain’s economic secretary to the treasury, Kitty Ussher, said the airport is discouraging business executives from travelling to the UK. Investment in the airport has dropped even as revenue has soared in the first year under foreign ownership. Thousands of people protested last July against the expansion of the airport for environmental reasons and the management of the airport resorted to extremely undemocratic means to prevent them from holding the protests on the periphery of the airport. Unlike in Mumbai where the opposition to such projects comes mainly from the poor who are the main victims, many of the protesters in the west are well organised, educated, committed and determined.

In Shanghai there are frequent flight delays for no apparent reason with constant expression of “terrible regret” on the public address system. The technological marvel of the super fast train between Shanghai and the airport is hideously expensive to maintain and unaffordable for most people. The lesson from this for a poor country like India is that becoming internationally competitive is an extremely expensive business and sustaining the pace is even more challenging. Airports and highways are important. But can we afford to expand capacity for costly infrastruc ture like airports and expressways beyond a limit while ignoring people’s basic needs?

Protests in Mumbai

Demonstrations against the Heathrow expansion were held at the same time as the violence resorted to by the Shiv Sena agitation against the proposed special economic zone of the Mukesh Ambani empire in Navi Mumbai left 150 cars and 32 buses damaged and 50 people injured.

Our bullish civil aviation minister Praful Patel talked of increasing the number of airports in the country from the present 80 to 500 at a function in Kolkata recently. Obviously an international uproar against air travel as a major contributor to global warming does not deter him. He also wants to give permission for the asking for new air services.

Airport expansion projects have internationally run into opposition for environmental reasons. In Mumbai there is a bigger issue, a human one, affecting the survival of the poor. The expansion involves removal of thousands of slumdwellers around the airport because they are in the path of arriving flights and so are considered an eyesore. As the Lokshahi Hakka Sanghatana has pointed out, the land may not be actually needed for expansion as another airport is planned in Navi Mumbai and a third at Kalyan is being contemp lated. But the land is being eyed because it will bring a financial bonanza. As in London a private operator has been brought in for the expansion setting aside the original public sector management.

Cars vs Bicycles

Several world class cities and their mayors are giving high priority to public transport unlike in Mumbai where the private motor car is being pampered at the expense of basic amenities for common people. New York’s mayor, media moghul Michael Bloomberg, is considered public transportation’s loudest cheerleader. He boasts that he takes the subway train virtually everyday to his office and encourages New Yorkers to follow his environment-friendly example (International Herald Tribune, August 2, 2007). But his commuting is not the average strap-hanger’s ride. There is criticism that he covers part of the journey in a king-size Chevorlet. But he zips his card at the entrance of trains stations and waits on the platform like other commuters. London’s socialist mayor Ken Livingstone is famous for his congestion tax on cars entering central London. In Paris, the scheme of providing some 10,000 selfservice bicycles at a nominal charge has proved immensely popular since its introduction in July. The pedaling army is seen to be taming the city’s fierce car traffic. Livingstone has now asked London Transport to develop a similar plan for London.

The bicycle is not seen to be inconsistent with Berlin’s place in the forefront of modern architecture with some striking new buildings, the glass-domed Reichstag and the annexe to German Parliament. Cycling is considered to be the best way to see Berlin.

In Mumbai there is a sad lack of innovative ideas in transport. The traffic police and the car lobby are hostile to the bicycle and even the environmentalists are timid. They think it is risky to ride a bicycle but they forget that unless there is resistance on the issue things will never improve. The left, far from coming out with any inno vative ideas on transport, is more friendly to the car lobby than other political parties as is seen in Kolkata. West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is encouraging more and more expensive multi-storied and underground car parks which seem to be heading for financial disaster like the multistoried car park at Nariman Point in Mumbai

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december 15, 2007 Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

since people prefer to usurp free parking space on the roadside. The pedestrian plaza at New Market in Kolkata has been taken over by local toughs who are using it for unauthorised two-wheeler parking.

Mismanagement of Buses

Nothing shows the failure of the administration in a more sad light than the almost daily deaths or injuries involving schoolchildren in accidents involving buses or what are locally known as pool cars in which children are huddled. No less injurious are Delhi’s Blueline buses, many of them owned by politicians or their henchmen. Common to Kolkata and Delhi is the pressure on bus drivers and conductors to drive as fast as possible to maximise profit. Urban bus transport constitutes perhaps the most spectacular failure of privatisation in the country. Mumbai’s municipalityowned bus transport system is much better than Kolkata’s or Delhi’s privatised bus transport. But the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) undertaking needs to supplement its efforts by providing bus shelters and decent seating spaces for commuters at bus stops as in Pune. It is also time the BEST gave up the ruinous idea of selling the space in bus depots to big builders. Any city wanting to encourage public transport would acquire more spaces, not give away its own land.

A few decision-makers in Mumbai have at last started realising that it is necessary to curb the car culture. T Chandrashekhar, till recently the commissioner for the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, sprang quite a surprise recently by coming out openly against the small car project of the Tatas. He said he would file a public interest litigation if the cars clogged the street of the city. That was something coming from a man who had launched a tirade against environmentalists two years ago.

The failure of the car-free day in cities in China on September 22 this year shows that neither the government nor the car using class have yet understood the seriousness of cars choking the air and the roads. But in China at least there was an attempt to observe the day. In India the international day went unnoticed.

Under pressure from the car lobby China banned bicycles in parts of several cities which the Guardian called ‘China’s

Economic & Political Weekly december 15, 2007

Leap Backward’ (December 17, 2003). Isabel Hilton, a journalist who has spent years in China, recalls that several neighbourhoods of old Shanghai were torn down to make way for motorways that soon became giant traffic jams.

We could have taken a leap by avoiding the mistakes the western world made through excess motorisation and the mistakes China has been making by imitating the west for the last few years. But our political class has completely wrong priorities. Shirish Patel, structural engineer, is right in opposing unfettered permissions for high rise buildings (Economic and Political Weekly, August 18, 2007). It is not skyscrapers that made London a financial and tourism gold mine. It was the lack of them, as Simon Jenkins, former editor of London Times points out (August 7, 2005). Our politicians also need to know their city better. Mumbai’s mayor Shubha Raul admitted recently that she would not have known of the existence of a colony of flamingoes in the mudflats near the Sewree railway station and oil refineries in Mumbai had it not been for a trip organised by a non-government organisation (NGO). On hearing of complaints of water pollution in the area, Raul said she wanted the municipal corporation to analyse the water but was told that the machinery was supposed to do analysis of only drinking water.

Despite talk of transparency in governance, the ownership of much of the urban land in the city is kept secret. Huge subsidies are given on vast tracts of land to corporate houses and clubs. Clearly there is a case for a big upward revision in rents of land whose lease comes to an end soon. In some cases the lease has run for 100 years. Figures obtained by activist Shailesh Gandhi under the Right to Information Act make for astounding reading. The quality of life in Mumbai is abysmally low for the common people despite the talk of a world class city. Some people do have a lot to smile and laugh about. The laughter that one hears at the laughter club outside the upper class Joggers Park in Bandra is the laughter of big money.

While open spaces are being taken over by big builders, several public parks are being privatised with entry fees for admission which the poor cannot afford. Some of these spaces frequented by the rich are being eyed by the corporate sector for sales promotion. In the last few months I have seen Reebok promoting its shoes in the seaside Joggers Park in Bandra with physical instructors telling people how to walk and run and enjoy it. A US company held a sales campaign in the area to sell its machines which convert humidity in the air into water. Now through these costly machines rich city dwellers will be able to harvest water literally from the air though at a huge cost both in terms of the price of the machine and the energy required to run it. In the worrying times of climate change and feared water shortage, the rich will be able to take care of themselves with such machines. The poor will be left gasping for fresh air and water.

Maintenance of Parks

Mumbai’s municipal corporation is giving a false impression that it does not have enough funds to maintain and develop public spaces and parks. This is refuted by former municipal commissioners like Sharad Kale, J G Kanga and D M Sukthankar. It is a rich body, has enough funds and it cannot shirk its responsibility of creating more open and green spaces in the city. One reason Singapore has become attractive to investors and has scored over Hong Kong is that it has hugely increased its green cover. Mumbai’s leadership, whether political or corporate, needs to become far more proactive on this issue than it has been. And the green spaces must be real public spaces, accessible to the people freely. Merely having big green spaces in large gated communities of the rich would be of little use to the city.

Mumbai first needs to provide basic amenities to its citizens before joining the chorus of making it a world class city. Mumbai should be seen in comparison with cities in Asia and Latin America rather than Europe and North America.

The new pattern of development completely ignores the nurturing of human, intellectual capital. This capital is many times more important than oil, copper, forest, factories and roads, points out World Bank economist Kirk Hamilton. Infrastructure constitutes only 20 per cent of a country’s assets, the other assets are intellectual. Yet little is being done to foster the development of human capital, Hamilton says (Reason, August/September 2007). It is the cultural, intellectual capital that is so wanting in Mumbai, a city flush with finance capital.

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