Slum dwellers do not figure in any column of the Rs. 58,000-crore transport infrastructure plan being pushed for Mumbai

Top decision-makers have been vying to present plans for the “makeover” of Mumbai. This term smacks of meretriciousness, as if the former industrial and still financial capital of the country wants to deck itself up and camouflage its squalor. The Maharashtra government is gung-ho about transforming the megalopolis into a “world class city” and has set up a Mumbai Transformation Support Unit with an office in the business district of Nariman Point.

The harsh truth is that Mumbai — the city proper, or Greater Mumbai, comprising some 480 sq km — is among the most wretched cities in the world, with the proportion of slum dwellers officially estimated at 60 per cent. That amounts to a staggering 7.5 million out of the 2011 census tally of 12.5 million. Split off, this “Jhopdistan” is almost as populous as the state of Israel. This is surely, both in proportionate and absolute terms, the largest number of slum dwellers in the entire world. But they do not figure, unsurprisingly enough, in any official discourse — whether by the state or corporate lobbies — in the “makeover” of this mega city.

Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan is keeping his powder dry before meeting the Prime Minister on his visit to Mumbai on August 18. He has some big-ticket projects up his sleeve for “funding aid and fast-track clearances”. These are the Virar-Alibaug Rs.10,000-crore multi-modal vehicle corridor from the northernmost point of the Greater Mumbai peninsula to the much larger Mumbai metropolitan region on the mainland; the identically priced 21-km Trans-Harbour Sea Link for vehicles from Sewri in the city proper to the mainland; the Rs.14,000-crore Navi Mumbai airport in the twin city; the Rs.16,000-crore Colaba-Bandra Metro line, connecting the southernmost tip of the island city to the first suburb on the west coast; and the Rs.8,000-crore coastal ring road (which term is incorrect, since it does not traverse the congested docklands in the east) from Marine Drive to Malad, hugging the entire length of the west coast .

By any reckoning, no city — with the exception of New Delhi — has attempted such ambitious Rs.58,000-crore projects. But none of them meets the prime needs of this beleaguered metropolis, which are jobs and homes. Even 15 years ago, demographers estimated that at least 75 per cent of the jobs were in the euphemistically termed “informal sector” — i.e. casual work. Now, the situation is far worse. Mumbai has only grown by six lakh since 2001 because there are no jobs to be had.

The Trans-Harbour Link, the multi-modal corridor (partly by road, largely by rail), and the coastal ring road are all for motorists and a very restricted number of buses. By their very nature, buses are meant for shorter distances, regular stops, which a multi-modal corridor and coastal road do not provide.

It is shocking that these three projects cater mostly to motorists, who only constitute eight per cent of the commuting public. These cars, along with trucks, which are far fewer in number, generate 60 per cent of the air pollution, which is driving away top executives, foreign or Indian, and incinerating any notion of making Mumbai “world class” like Singapore or Shanghai, let alone an “international finance centre”, as Mumbai First, a corporate think-tank, has been plugging for.

Politics plays its bit in configuring some of these projects. The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, which is firmly in the grip of the ruling Congress, is gunning for the coastal ring road. It should be the apex planning body for the city, after it developed the new central business district of Bandra-Kurla.

Its model is to develop and sell land — mostly by reclaiming land from mangroves, in total ignorance of the ecological repercussions — and is the only cash-rich State institution. It has been bypassed in recent years by the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC), a fiefdom of the Nationalist Congress Party, the junior partner in the coalition. As its name suggests, it is an implementing agency, not a planning body; but it has built some 50 flyovers and the Bandra-Worli Sea Link in utter disdain of any planning principles.

Even the economics of the new road schemes has gone awry. The MSRDC built the Bandra-Worli Sea Link and wants to extend it northwards: sea links cost Rs.400 crore per km, five times more than a road on reclaimed land. The Rs.1,600-crore Sea Link was supposed to carry 75,000 passengers a day, but actually sees less than half as many. That, when the toll was Rs.50 one way and Rs.75 return. The slight increase to Rs.55 and Rs.82.50 return has seen a further decline in traffic. Transport experts estimate that if Bandra is linked to Versova entirely by a sea link, as MSRDC is still pushing for, a motorist may have to fork out Rs.440 for a return trip. That will only witness a further decline of users, and ultimately lead to the public subsidising motorists.

The final nail in the coffin for a coastal road, which is a far easier option and may not involve a toll, is its ecological impact. Apart from destroying the scenic beauty of Mumbai’s most prized natural asset — its coastline — it threatens to decimate the mangroves at stretches like Carter Road. This road, and its companion at Bandstand, lie cheek by jowl and have public promenades, maintained by residents, and is the jewel in the crown of these suburbs.

(Darryl D'Monte heads the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India.

E-mail: darryldmonte@gmail.com)

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