After being ravaged for years, Mumbai is finally dying. There is only so much a city can take, and Maharashtra’s glittering capital with towering buildings, sprawling slums and crumbling infrastructure cannot bear the burden any further. The signs of decay became pronounced in the wake of liberalisation, when India’s financial capital emerged as the darling of business houses, attracting millions of migrant workers from all over the country. As profits soared for a minuscule, Mumbai’s descent into filth and squalor became rapid. Today, the stark contrast between jaw-dropping wealth and acute deprivation is more than a defining feature for the city as it grapples with urban poverty and dangerous levels of pollution.
The government, of course, would point to a raft of infrastructural projects it has undertaken to resuscitate the city, but by the time they are up and running, what remains of the metropolis would be beyond redemption. The recently inaugurated 11.4 km-long Mumbai Metro, delayed by several years and now mired in fare controversy, is a cosmetic intervention for a terminally ill city. Apart from mere administrative approval for a new international airport in Panvel, a slew of projects such as metro lines linking Charkop-Bandra-Mankhurd and in the Colaba-Bandra-Andheri route, the coastal road along the western seafront are still at the wishful-thinking stage. Like the rest of India, infrastructural initiatives in Mumbai take a long time to take off, and when they finally do, work moves at snail’s pace.
Long time in the making, but trapped in procedural delays with an indecisive leadership of the ruling Cong-NCP government rarely rising to the challenge, there is finally some movement on the Dharavi Redevelopment front. But, interest in Dharavi is triggered by its real estate value. Private builders would carry out bulk of the work, making more than a tidy sum in profits by redeveloping four out of the five sectors in Asia’s largest slum in the heart of the city.
If only the civic authorities realised the enormity of the disaster the city has been struck with. By 2017, Mumbai would be home to 20.5 million slum dwellers, most of them migrating from the countryside and the districts in search of livelihood. According to the recently released Maharashtra Human Development Index (HDI) report, this mass migration, the result of a non-agricultural and urban-centric growth, would precipitate a crisis on an unprecedented scale. The harrowing effects it would have on space-starved Mumbai’s frail infrastructure do not seem to stir the civic corporation and state government. This could perhaps be the worst form of urbanisation of poverty and lowering of the basic standards in life — primarily literacy and health care. Mumbai’s housing problem has long ago acquired monstrous proportions leading to a profusion of slums. One shudders to think what’s going to happen in the next three years. Life in a Mumbai slum is characterised by open sewers, lack of toilet facilities and drinking water as well as a complete disregard for hygiene. Yet thousands flock to the city every month in the desperation to escape poverty and starvation in the villages.
Ironically, the very factors that propelled Mumbai to the global stage also brought about its decline. The abysmal conditions of livelihood in the rest of the country conspired to bring down this once great island of opportunities.