Can Mumbai’s Population be Eased?

By Ubaid Parkar

“There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit,
And it’s filled with people who are filled with sh*t,
And the vermin of the world inhabit it…”

The lines from “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” provide a fleeting glimpse of London during the mid 19th century but they seem to be of much relevance today in the city of Mumbai.

India is a population of 1.1 billion today, a sixth of the world’s population with close to a third of the population clogging urban areas. According to the estimates based on the 1999-2000 NSS survey, migrants constitute about 37 per cent of Mumbai population. And prior to the recession which hit the country in the months of mid 2008, the number can be vehemently assumed to have increased. The report further stipulates that three quarters of the migrants emerge from rural areas insearch of greener pastures in the concrete jungles of the urban expanses. Ironic it is.

Mumbai is the economic capital of the country and it is very much apparent that it is the equivalent of the American Dream, of capitalism, of neon lights, of riches and other reaches. But this has consequently placed adverse pressure on the city. Mumbai has a population density of approximately 22,000 people per square kilometre as opposed to an affluent yet well planned city like Chandigarh which borders on 8000 per square kilometre. It is an obvious fact that infrastructure is vital to decongest the city in every aspect, be it commuting, pollution, civic amenities and housing.

Ad hoc arrangements like Skywalks and Flyovers are not the answer. It is unreasonable to accommodate every inch of the population in a country that rims with political apathy and constricting their demands in one city alone. The first thing that is noticed in the city is the depleted conditions of roads and overcrowded locals. Train compartments have a capacity of 200 but are regularly crammed with close to 550 commuters, almost three fold – a situation where up to 16 standing passengers share every square meter of floor space.

Moreover, the roads are constantly dug up for telecom works for cables and are covered up with tiles for future access resulting ride quality disastrous. Commuting has thus become a disaster and is quite common to cover a distance from Bandra to Andheri, a distance of 8 km odd, in 90 minutes during peak hours. And Mumbai’s suburbs have taken most of the brunt. And this will not stop.

Generous State aid was granted in manufacturing the Tata Nano, the world’s cheapest car when better public transport is required. Roads do not augment the seeming widths as bottleneck points due to a large number of intersections with major and minor roads constrict them. The Peddar Road Flyover is a prime example of bursting pressures and controversies, estimated at Rs. 125 crores it is meant as a stop-gap arrangement also affecting personal privacies of the loaded in the vicinity, not to mention vehicular noise and pollution. And let’s face it, flyovers in the middle of the city, regardless of their undoubted utility, are sordid eyesores. Keep them on the highways I say.

Impromptu solutions are feeding more problems into the system.

Amenities like water have a daily shortfall in the vicinity of 800 million litres per day. The wastages that occur due to wastages of the supply through pilferage or leakages are in the roundabouts of 700 million litres per day. The pilferages are of course due to the uprising of slums and other illegal housing facilities. Slums would not exist if the people living there would have been provided adequate opportunities wherever they came from. Similar fates exist in the need of power supply as well.

This brings us to the question of Housing. Slums. Dharavi, Asia’s biggest slum is not only an blot on the landscape but a damnation of policies and the failure of Governments to provide an answer. The Maharashtra Regional and Town Planning Actof 1966, which also contains the Development Control Rules (DC Rules) regulate the Character of buildings and density of population allowed in a specified area. The prescribed density ceiling for ordinary housing was 200 tenements per net hectare.

The Floor Space Index concept was based on the land price level and the population potential as assessed by the planners in pursuit of the decongestion concept. The provisions have to show the urgency to be reviewed. An increase in FSI, perhaps? But then again adequate plans for the provisions of infrastructure for realistic levels of population in different parts of the city will be greatly skewed if the migrating population rears it head unreasonably. We do not want another Japan where its population density has helped promote extremely high land prices. Between 1955 and 1989, land prices in Japan’s six largest cities increased 15,456 percent. There is much meaning in the claim that the city’s housing problem is not so much due to physical shortage of land, as unhelpful building regulations and that constrained the supply of available land in the market and precluded the constructionof affordable housing.

The Fundamental Right – The Right to Life has been blatantly misunderstood and misused. The Right to Life does not mean demanding a better life away from home. If the population of UP and Bihar, or North Indians for that matter, are targeted, they should be done so, non violently of course, as they do not demand for their Rights in their native places but rather demand more in a city which is already packed like sardines. Expectations will be met with disappointments. The underlying fact should be that the city should be open to anyone who can afford to stay her legally, not in illegal slums occupying land where electricity and water is a subject of pilferage and defecations are done considering the city as their loos.

It is of course a double edged sword as the rural migrant population constitute the supply of labour at a low cost which could easily have set prices at stupendous levels. But then again, the country has only one Mumbai, called by different names, Bambai and Bombay. We need replicas of the city, not just a few but many across the nation. Pune, for instance, is a splendid destination with a lot of promise that can take away, although reluctantly, the shine and gloss of this fair city. Other cities as well need to have a higher standard of living staring with education. The opportunities offered by the city are putting pressure on what it can offer. The highest tax paying city in the country should now start sharing its burdens.

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