Chronicles From Waste to Wasteland
Mumbai recently launched a massive cleanup drive in an effort to roll in the renewal of the city. This is the vision of Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, who, as demolition squads launch into a frenzy of activity, said, “every Chief Minister likes to be remembered, and I’m no exception.” A chance at immortality is hard to pass up and throughout history, kings and emperors sought to be remembered through the cities they left behind. But perhaps Deshmukh is already assured a certain kind of immortality in the minds of the 3 million people who will be displaced as a result of his ‘cleanup’.

Mumbai today, is tottering under the impending collapse of its antiquated infrastructure. One of the richest cities, often referred to as the ‘financial capital of the country’, it alone contributes about 40 percent of the nation’s taxes, yet it has completely failed to invest back into the city. As people throng to this metropolis of hope, it watches, and appears to be completely helpless in the face of this invasion, unable to keep pace with the influx.

Currently, 62 percent of Mumbai’s population lives in slums. About 18 lakh slum dwellings, home to 9 million people, proliferate across the city. After 1995 was declared as the cut-off date for legalising slums, there was a 25 percent jump in their number; as a result, 4.5 lakh shanties are now illegal. So far, about 72,000 slum dwellings have been razed by a galvanised administration. Yet no such zeal seems to have been forthcoming regarding the rehabilitation of the displaced and dispossessed. “They will have to go back home,” said Deputy Chief Minister R.R. Patil. How does the Government delude itself into believing that the simple act of demolition of slums will magically order the city? The ‘slum population’ has not gone anywhere; they are still there, invisible workers by day and bone tired ghosts by night, collapsing on any available surface. Where are they expected to go? To return to the wrenching torment and poverty of the wastelands they fled from?

On his recent visit to Mumbai the Prime Minister expressed the hope that the vast numbers of the dispossessed would be “relocated properly” and stressed the need for “development with a human face”. On another occasion he had rued the deplorable condition of our cities, saying that Indian cities have to be made “more liveable”: “We have to take steps to enable people who work in the city to be able to live away from it. This can only be made possible with rapid public transport.” In Mumbai, average peak-hour loading of trains is in excess of 4500 passengers per train compared to a ‘design capacity’ of 1800 per train and ‘crush load capacity’ of 2600 per train. Despite this inhuman state of affairs, the Mumbai Urban Transport Project has been pending for 17 years! How did Singh imagine that the administration would even manage to do right by the people whose homes had been demolished?

The commonly used expression in describing cities as ‘engines of growth’ often ignores the fact that the slums, the shanty towns burgeoning across the city, are the fuel that powers that engine; without them there would be very little growth. According to one estimate, 35 percent of the population living in urban areas contributes over 60 percent of the country’s net domestic product. It is the tenacity and determination of the individuals who live in these hell holes that plays a large part in contributing to this development. Just one slum, Dharavi, in Mumbai generates business worth nearly $ 1 billion each year, as local workshops produce leather goods, pottery, jewellery, most of which are exported to the West.

It seems that all that plagues planning can solely be blamed on the fact that the authorities always seem to wake up to a problem twenty years too late. If basic housing needs cannot be met, it is nothing but an administrative failure. Today, there is an acute housing crisis in the country. In the urban sector alone, the supply-demand gap is about 17 million units. Over 90 percent of the housing demand is from low-income families and the growth of slums is the direct consequence of this shortage. Every year the number of their residents grows at the rate of 9 to 10 percent and more than 25 percent of them are home based workers, mostly women. Penalizing these people, driving them as cattle, ‘relocating’ or flinging them on the outskirts of the city, simply because of woefully inadequate planning policies, amounts not only to a stupendous miscarriage of justice, but to a totally skewed economic logic as well. The establishment, which has no qualms about projecting itself as the injured, is actually the aggressor in failing to fulfil its basic duties towards its citizens and instead doubling their distress.

Under the current ‘Mumbai makeover’ the Government claims to have cleared 300 acres but remains silent on the issue of ‘rehabilitation’ of the 3.5 lakh people who have been displaced so far. Slum rehabilitation programmes in Mumbai, have had a disastrous past. Under an ambitious plan launched by the then Government in December 1997, 200,000 homes were to be built by the end of 1999. Appallingly, at the end of March 2001, only 7,461 tenements were ready for occupation. The report of the S.S. Tinaikar Committee exposed this programme to be ‘nothing but a fraud, designed to enrich Mumbais powerful construction lobby.’

Against this backdrop of ineptitude and complete breakdown of accountability is another time, when the state did not sit and make glib excuses and twiddle its thumbs. At the time of Partition, Delhi witnessed one of the largest immigrations in human history. The city, with a population of about 900,000, received almost 470,000 refugees. 1941-1951 was a period of the highest demographic growth in the history of the capital; from 700,000 inhabitants in 1941 to 1.79 million in 1951, corresponding to an annual growth rate of 7.5 percent, which has not been equalled since. (Mumbai’s annual rate of growth, by comparison, was under 2 percent between 1981- 2001). There was no administrative infrastructure and certainly no urban systems in place to deal with this unprecedented crisis. Against this backdrop of unmitigated suffering, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called for the immediate creation of the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation. By December 1950, three lakh refugees had been housed. By 1952, virtually the entire backlog had been cleared. A large number of shops and commercial establishments, along with educational institutions were also created. The satellite township of Faridabad was remodelled to absorb part of the influx. The drive and determination of men like Nehru, their complete focus on problem-solving, made it possible to translate chaos into calm and stability.

Today, with an annual budget that far surpasses the revenues available at the time of Partition, we are witness to a spiralling urban chaos, as the collective administrations of urban India are unable or unwilling to focus with resolve and dedication on restoring order. “Mumbai should become another Shanghai,” said the Prime Minister. Perhaps that is the problem; the solution to creating great cities lies, not in attempts at imitating the chaotic, architectural follies of other countries; instead, it is time to recover the focussed commitment that helped sort out problems of a far more complex nature than those that confront us today, and just concentrate on getting the job done.

Chitvan Gill

Published in The Pioneer, February 14, 2005



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