The Shiv Sena’s unchallenged hand in running Mumbai to the ground is visible in the machismo displayed over the Shivaji Park site
The makeshift memorial to Bal Thackeray is finally gone, in a secret operation under cover of darkness and heavy security with absolutely no media coverage permitted. A party that riots in the full glare of cameras wanted no one to witness an act which was a compliance of the law. It was their own temple that they were demolishing; their sensitivities had to be respected.
Bal Thackeray’s funeral took place on November 18; the dismantling of the makeshift structure on which he was cremated was carried out on December 19. For a whole month, Mumbaikars were subjected to a show of machismo by the Shiv Sena over the removal of the structure erected in the city’s landmark open maidan, Shivaji Park. This was accompanied by the mandatory vandalism of public property. When they finally announced they would follow the law and remove the structure, it was described by the media as a “climbdown” which “stunned” leaders of the ruling party.
Every day for a month, Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan declared he would not tolerate the conversion of the structure into a memorial. Every announcement of his was met with a challenge: in the party mouthpiece Saamna and on TV, Sena leaders declared they would break the hands and feet of those who touched their ‘sacred monument’. Of course no action was taken against them. Yet, Mr. Chavan was hailed by the media for his “tough” stand.
This is the state to which the financial capital of the country has been reduced. Expectations of the main opposition party abiding by the law are so low that we prostrate ourselves when the party merely announces its intention to do so.
The surroundings of the Shivaji Park are home to the city’s traditional elite. Fiercely protective of the maidan, these citizens rush to court at the slightest hint of its inappropriate use, even for political rallies, which have been held there for decades. Yet, these prickly residents did nothing but hope that the new Sena chief, Uddhav Thackeray, would intervene to have the ‘shakti sthal’ removed.
It was expected that the government would act before December 6, when lakhs of Dalits converge on Shivaji Park for Dr. Ambedkar’s Mahaparinirvan Day. But Republican Party of India leader Ramdas Athawale, who now has an alliance with the Sena, simply told the Dalits to pay their respects to Thackeray along with Ambedkar. Obediently, they bowed before the photograph of the man who had opposed the renaming of Marathwada University as Dr. Ambedkar University, whose followers had burnt their homes through the Namantar (renaming) agitation in the early 90s, and whose lieutenant had ‘purified’ a city landmark with ganga jal after a Dalit rally was held there.
Even the Army...
Then came the Army’s takeover of Shivaji Park on December 12, for which it had got the court’s sanction. The Thackeray structure, said Army spokesmen, was an obstacle to the air show that could prove hazardous for spectators.
Imagine the national outrage such a situation would have invoked had it occurred in any other State capital: the Army not being able to use a maidan it had booked months in advance for a spectacular show, because it has been encroached upon — and the government simply looking on. But in Mumbai? What! It was the Tiger’s memorial after all. Even after death, the ‘Tiger’ is allowed to prey on his city. So much for Mumbai being the Urbs Prima of the country.
Other indicators tell us it’s time to stop using this title for Mumbai. The city’s Municipal Corporation is the richest in the country, with a budget larger than that of many States. For 16 years, Thackeray’s party has run it, with a State government-appointee as its head. Water supply, roads, hospitals, drainage, garbage clearance, schools, street lighting — on all counts, the BMC’s performance has been abysmal. Whatever the reasons, it’s not due to lack of funds. The BMC has, till last month, used only 17 per cent of its budget for this financial year. This underutilisation of funds in a chronically ill city has been a recurring story over the last four years. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 Mumbaikars have been stricken by dengue. While the BMC says only five of them died, its own doctors put the number as higher.
One may escape dengue if one’s lifestyle permits, but who can escape roads that suddenly cave in, potholes that send you off your two-wheeler into the path of incoming vehicles, and cranes, slabs of concrete, or iron scaffolding that fall on you as you walk near a metro site? Eleven persons have died in metro-related ‘accidents’ since 2008, but the Labour Department has only now sent a ‘stop work’ notice to one contractor, Hindustan Construction Company, headed by Ajit Gulabchand, the man behind Lavasa, Sharad Pawar’s dream city. The Department’s report states that workers were given neither safety harnesses nor helmets. Construction of the metro is being handled by the Anil Ambani-owned Reliance Infrastructure, with the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority being in charge overall.
The MMRDA, which was barely heard of before 2004, and now governs almost all aspects of Mumbaikars’ lives, is accountable to no one but the Chief Minister. Many wonder what’s behind the choice of routes for this super-expensive project; and, is anyone looking into the quality of work? But there’s nowhere one can get an answer. But here’s one reassuring fact relating to another Anil Ambani company. Since 2005, as many as six workers died and seven were seriously injured while working on Reliance Energy sites. An investigation by this writer last year revealed absence of gloves, safety boots with holes in them, and inadequate supervision by trained personnel. Neither the PWD nor the Directorate of Industrial Safety has cared to look into these ‘accidents’ despite reminders by the concerned trade union. Metro workers don’t even have a union.
Parties flaunting their prowess even in front of the Army; patients lying on the floor while municipal doctors stitch their wounds with wrong-sized needles and gloves; swathes of pedestrians risking their lives just walking on the roads; non-existent pavements — this is daily life in glittering Mumbai.
(Jyoti Punwani is a Mumbai-based journalist)