Chronicles Mumbai Dreams Shanghaied
The idea of turning Mumbai into a Shanghai seems to have captured the imagination of an astonishing number of people, who seem to think that the shiny city represents the perfect marriage of finance and ‘high culture’. The dream of Mumbai’s ‘renewalists’ is to turn the city into a charachterless maze of odd-looking, sky-kissing buildings within which will move the captains of industry and the mandarins of culture. Each to his own; the trouble with this dream is not the rather questionable attributes that it seeks to emulate, but the sense of megalomania that appears to have seized the sensibilities of the ‘visionaries’, who are deluded enough to believe that they can achieve a Shanghai with their ham handed and witless attempts at transforming Mumbai .

Take a closer look at the story of the city that Mumbai is so anxious to emulate. Shanghai has the highest population density in all of China, with a population pegged at 20 million. The turnaround of Shanghai into China’s foremost city was the result of a single-minded urban agenda with a focused and coherent set of urban policies and strategies, consistently pursued over more than a decade.

Emerging from the Cultural Revolution, Shanghai began plans for redevelopment and urban renewal. Faced with a large and ever-increasing population of migrants, the administration prioritized housing to be the prime undertaking in reordering the city. In 1985, nearly half of the city’s 1.8 million households lived in overcrowded conditions, including over 200,000 in dwelling units with less than two square metres per person. Setting itself the goal of ‘adequate shelter for all’ the Shanghai municipality began implementing the Housing Settlement Project in 1987 and launched a series of housing schemes. One such was the ‘365 project’, which set out to dismantle all the city’s 3.65 million square meters of slum houses and temporary shacks, with a simultaneous programme for rehabilitation and relocation of their inhabitants.

During the 1990s an average of 50,000 households were re-housed each year. In 10 years 1.5 million people had been re-housed. By 1995, average per capita living space had increased to 8 square metres and by 2003 the average floor space consumption was 13.1 square metres per person. The relocated were set up in apartments, mostly in the outer-city areas, but with access to the subway system and a relatively well-functioning public infrastructure of hospitals, schools and markets in the neighborhood.

In stark contrast are the ‘far sighted’ planners of Mumbai, who, from the shameful demolitions of 1987 to the demolitions of 2005, have done little else by way of urban ‘planning’. Mumbai, today, offers just 2.9 square metres of floor space per capita – among the lowest in the world. The complete failure of successive administrations to provide affordable housing has gone into the making of Mumbai’s slums. Add to this, warped urban laws that blatantly discriminate against economically weaker sections.

Thus, the first and so far it seems the only act to usher in the ‘Mumbai renewal’ has been the demolition of slums and more slums, with no provisions for the relocation of their inhabitants whatsoever. It would seem the idea of a city is defined by its slums, the concept of urban planning has no place in the scheme of things. But the act of demolishing slums goes no way in bringing about order and ‘renewal’. What, for instance, has happened to the over 3 lakh people who have been displaced so far in Mumbai? The answer: they have just moved to some other part of the city. What have the demolitions achieved? If there is a genuinely honest effort to restore the crumbling, rotting edifice of Mumbai, politicians and planners have to cast their eyes on a much larger picture than the myopic one they have been fixed on. Urban structures are not degraded by the arrival of a stream of humanity, but by the failure of the administration to absorb, cater to, and order that humanity.

The creation of a Shanghai does not happen with the mere presence of well heeled industrialists, politicians, bureaucrats and an elite upper-middle class. Shanghai is only attainable as long as the city’s machinery is well oiled and running. For Mumbai, that is only possible with the cheap labour and services of the millions who live in slums. 68 percent of total employment in Mumbai is from the informal sector, whose workers form the bulk of the urban poor. Slums, consequently, constitute an indirect subsidy to industry, pushing down the price of labour by denying workers decent housing.

The character of the ‘informal economy’ enables corrupt municipalities and governments to exploit land for commercial gain rather than planned development. It is time we stopped looking at the presence of slums as mere repositories of ‘vote bank’ politics. If Mumbai and cities across urban India want to clean up, they have only two hard choices. Either pay the actual market price for labor (including the cost of decent housing) or get down and start building reasonable accommodation for them; not colonies of ‘one room tenements’ which further blight the city.

In Shanghai, though the prime focus was on housing for all, and not just ‘slum management’, the renewal did not stop there. The extended strategy for urban development, was called ‘one dragons head and three centres’, and was aimed at the opening and development of the entire Pudong area. Planned as a metropolitian city with only one centre in the 1950’s, Shanghai, by the mid 90’s, according to estimates, had an urban system which consisted of 230 centres, including 7 satellite towns , 31 county seats (designated towns), 2 industrial districts, 175 market towns, and 15 farm market towns. Each of these centres is required to have its distinct development plan.

Another programme, the Xin tian di Plan, is centered around preserving the whole central city as a historical center. ‘A new approach towards urban renewal, it aims to create a compact and workable district center, located between Shanghai’s ancient walled city and its dynamic downtown.’ The development will ultimately accommodate 1.6 million square metres of retail, housing, office and hotel space.

But the idea of Shanghai, the real force behind that city, is the spirit of enterprise that guides it. It is an open, welcoming city that understands that, in order to grow, it cannot shut out the world. Thus Shanghai embraces everyone, from multinationals and corporate investors, to the hordes of migrants streaming in every year. Its success lies in its management.

The truth is, given the number of powerful players who hold Mumbai’s fate to ransom, it has become easiest to target slums. The men who do so are not acting out of any great concern for the city. “When we launched the (demolition) drive, we never thought of their rehabilitation,” said R.R. Patil, Maharashtra’s Home Minister. “Legally speaking, that is not the responsibility of the Government.” A whole story is encapsulated in that statement; when the very men who are in charge reveal such a mean-spirited and totally incoherent vision, what hope is there for the city?

Chitvan Gill

Published in The Pioneer, May 12, 2005



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