For a new Mumbai, at great cost

Published : Jan 28, 2005 00:00 IST

The Rs.31,000-crore project for Mumbai has an admirable intention, to turn the metropolis into a liveable and efficient place, but the question being asked is whether it can be redeveloped on the debris of thousands of shanties.

in Mumbai

THE ambitious "Shanghaisation" of Mumbai is finally under way. Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh kicked off the project, which was initiated by the previous Democratic Front (D.F.) government, by announcing a Rs.31,000-crore package in early December 2004 and subsequently launching a massive clean-up drive of the metropolis. While the end result could benefit all its citizens, the initial impact is bound to be the hardest on the city's poor and voiceless.

So far more than 45,000 shanties have been demolished, displacing nearly two lakh people, but freeing up to 300 acres (120 hectares) of land. Activists, social workers and urban planners question the government's callousness in evicting people who were a precious vote bank until recently. Does the solution to Mumbai's problems lie in clearing the urban poor and building projects to be used by less than 40 per cent of the population? they ask. Or, is this is just a ploy to free precious real estate?

Undoubtedly, Mumbai is bursting at the seams. Over the years several attempts have been made to streamline development, improve infrastructure and manage the influx of migrants from all over the country. While some plans were implemented, others remained in cold storage. In November 2001, encouraged by the government, Bombay First, a non-governmental organisation with representatives from the corporate world, commissioned global consulting firm Mckinsey and Company to prepare a comprehensive plan for the city. Mckinsey presented a blueprint in September 2003 for the overall development of the city over the next decade. This plan, coupled with the government's strategies, came to be called the "Vision Mumbai" project. A task force created to strategise and execute the project stated that Mumbai can be turned into a "world class city" by 2013 at an estimated cost of Rs.2,00,000 crores.

With the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance back in power, the "Vision Mumbai" project appears to be back on the agenda and Deshmukh, in his second term, is determined to "make Mumbai into Shanghai", as promised by the alliance in its election manifesto.

Essentially, Mckinsey focussed on six key areas: economic growth, transportation, housing, other infrastructure (to ensure safe water, sanitation, health facilities and reduce pollution), financing of projects and governance. The Mckinsey report said that to revamp Mumbai, an 8-10 per cent economic growth, up from the current 2.4 per cent, was essential. This would involve creating almost 0.5 million jobs. With regard to housing, land availability would have to increase by 50-70 per cent, besides an increase in the floor space index and relaxation of the coastal zonal regulations. Furthermore, the controversial Rent Control Act, and Urban Land Ceiling Act would need to be tackled.

Although there was no dispute on the focus of the report, urban planners and social activists criticised several of the recommendations, particularly the corporatisation of government departments, including sections of the Municipal Corporation. Critics pointed out that on issues related to land it seemed as though this was a builder's plan. While the Cabinet cherry-picked a few suggestions and gave its nod to begin work on some projects mainly relating to transportation, many of Mckinsey's proposals still remain only on paper.

The package was one of Deshmukh's first major announcements after he assumed office. Allotting such a huge amount of money for the city when the State is reeling under a Rs.90,000-crore debt, seems to signal that the government is serious about its plans. "Someone has to take the responsibility to do something for the city. It is time to give something back to Mumbai," Deshmukh told the media. Backing him is none other than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who stated emphatically during his visit to Mumbai in November that the Centre would help in improving the city and that very soon "people will be talking about Mumbai just the way they do about Shanghai". The State government has sent a plan to raise funds to the Planning Commission for approval.

"The idea is to raise the money through various means. We do not want to burden the State's treasury any more than necessary," said Sanjay Ubale, member-secretary of the task force on Mumbai. To begin with, the State plans to start a Mumbai Development Fund and hopes to raise a substantial amount through it. Besides, most of the projects will be constructed on a Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT) basis with private sector participation, Sanjay Ubale told Frontline. But there is a viability gap and the State government has appealed to the Central government to provide a portion of the funds. There is a Central government scheme that provides funds for such development projects to the extent of 20 per cent of the total estimated cost, said Ubale, and "we hope to tap into it". He hoped to get about Rs.9,000 crores from the Centre.

Over half a dozen transport-related projects will benefit immediately from the Rs.31,000 crores. These include the Mumbai Metro project, an underground and elevated rail system; the trans-harbour link connecting the mainland and the island city, which has been cleared; extension of the suburban railway up to Kalyan in the north of Mumbai as part of the Mumbai Urban Transport Project-II; the linking of the eastern and western expressways through roads and flyovers under the Mumbai Urban Infrastructure Project; and the much awaited sealink, the first phase of which is nearing completion and which will eventually connect Nariman Point to the western suburbs. The projection is that by 2013 Mumbai will be a slick city with wide roads, modern highways and more comfortable trains and buses, beautiful seaface promenades and gardens and playgrounds. There will be no shortage of public utilities such as water, electricity and sanitation either.

BUT to make all this happen it is the poor and the voiceless, as always, who will have to pay a price. To make land available for these projects it was decided to rid government property of encroachers. So in the first visible "cleaning up" move, in early December 2004 the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) was given carte blanche to demolish slums that had encroached on BMC and State government land after 1995. Those that existed before 1995 were regularised. According to BMC estimates, through December, 83 squads of workers demolished approximately 45,000 shanties across the city.

The lakhs of people rendered homeless by the demolitions do not have secure shelters. They live in the hope that some relief will be provided soon. "It is cold, we have no food and we cannot go to work because there is nowhere to keep our belongings," said Sunita Kaude, who came from Marathwada with her husband and two children in 1996 and found a place in a slum at Colaba in south Mumbai. "We cleared the land, which was a swamp, and made it liveable. Now they want the land. The politicians promised to regularise our home if we gave them our vote. They said they would do it for all those who built before 2000. What happened to that?" The politicians have backtracked on their promise. Moreover, Sunita has a weak case, for she and her neighbours cleared mangroves to build huts, which is illegal.

"We don't have a target but our aim is to get rid of every illegal shanty in the city," said Prakash Patil, an Assistant Municipal Commissioner who is overseeing a part of the clearing drive. "The demolitions have been on the government's agenda but because of the two elections last year we could not carry them out. The Election Commission directives did not permit them. But as soon as the new government took over, we started clearing the encroachments." Until the first week of January more than 300 acres had been freed in the island city, he said.

"While this kind of massive encroachment in the city is unprecedented and must be tackled, the way the state has gone about clearing people is extremely unfair," said Chandrasekhar Prabhu, former Chairman of the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) who also worked in the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA). "The people who cleared the slums were always aware of the encroachments and even made money from it. How could they be unaware of these massive illegal settlements? In 2004, more than 50,000 shanties came up on government land. And in 2003 there were between 60,000 and 70,000. How did they permit this in the first place? Action should have been taken when the encroachment began... . This is a complete collapse of government machinery. They do not plan for the poor yet use them for their gains."

According to Sharit Bhowmik, a sociologist involved in rehabilitation programmes, slums are projected as the cause of most, if not all, urban problems. The general idea is that they generate filth, breed criminals and usurp facilities that should rightfully go to "tax-paying citizens". Whether slumdwellers are really responsible for the strain on the civic amenities is never investigated, but these views are convenient to use in the argument in favour of demolition. Bhowmik points out that high-rise apartments cause greater strain on public utilities (drainage, garbage, water and so on) as their consumption is much higher than in the slums. Besides, many of the settlements have risen out of marshland, where the settlers have filled the land and made it liveable. Since most of the dirty work has already been done, it is easy for the government to claim ownership now.

"If you want to tackle the city's problems, you must ask why there is this proliferation of urban poor in Mumbai," said Bhowmik. The shrinking of employment opportunities in the city's formal manufacturing sector has pushed workers into low-income and insecure work in the informal sector. "Do not underestimate this sector, they are crucial in making the city function," said Bhowmik. Along with this, low-skilled migrants from smaller towns and rural areas, who come in search of work because of drought or other such adverse circumstances, add to the burgeoning population of the poor. What is worse, he added, are the rehabilitation schemes when demolition takes place. Most poor people live near their sources of employment. When the government rehabilitates them, it is often in uninhabitable areas or at such great distance from their workplaces that they have to spend a fair amount of their earnings to get to work.

About 60 per cent of Mumbai's population of 12 million are classified as urban poor and live in slums. During elections this population constitutes an important vote bank. The Congress-NCP alliance, in fact, promised in its election manifesto to regularise slums built up to 2000. Said Bhowmik: "It is a myth that slumdwellers are a powerful vote bank. They are, in effect, a much-needed vote bank because of their numbers. Politicians threaten them with eviction if they don't vote for them. Otherwise, why else would the present government dismiss its election promises? The political ramifications could be huge if the poor were as powerful as they are made out to be."

Although the intention to turn Mumbai into a liveable and efficient city is not being questioned, the point is whether it can be redeveloped on the debris of thousands of shanties. Much of the "Vision Mumbai" plan has been declared pro-rich, pro-privatisation and pro-builder. Even the viability of some of the larger projects is being debated, particularly since many of the past projects have not been as successful as they were made out to be. Navi Mumbai and the Mumbai-Pune expressway are cited as the most obvious examples of such projects. Perhaps Mumbai will eventually turn into Shanghai but hopefully not at the cost of the marginalised.

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