A manifesto for revisioning Mumbai

January 11, 2011 03:07 pm | Updated October 12, 2016 11:32 pm IST

Chennai: 18/10/2010: The Hindu: Book Review Column: Title: Revisioning Mumbai, Conceving a Manifesto for sustainable Development.
Author: Vimal Shah and Pankaj Joshi.

Chennai: 18/10/2010: The Hindu: Book Review Column: Title: Revisioning Mumbai, Conceving a Manifesto for sustainable Development. Author: Vimal Shah and Pankaj Joshi.

As Jonathan Raban, renowned author of Soft City perceptively observes, the city is the “natural habitat of the immigrant.” To go by a study in the developing countries covering 1995-2005, about 165,000 people move to urban areas every day drawn by job opportunities.

The incessant inflow and the exponential growth of a city, in itself, may not be a scary challenge, but weak urban planning and lack of political commitment to provide adequate housing is, as Arjun Appadurai points out in his essay in this book. These shortcomings create deep inequalities and diminish the quality of life in urban areas. No city in India illustrates this more than Mumbai.

Can urban conservation act as a catalyst for planning the heavily industrialised Mumbai and mitigate its ills? Can it help restore the city in its entirety — history, geography, art, and culture included? These are the key questions raised in this book, a collection of papers presented at the Asiatic Society's bicentennial conference. As the introduction notes, the avowed objective of the publication is to produce a vision statement — a manifesto for suitable development of the city.

Growth and problems

Well-known cultural theorist Appadurai, in his lead essay, locates Mumbai's growth and planning problems in a global context and highlights the city's specific issues. Those who wish to know more about the critical points flagged in this brief article will have to access his detailed analysis in essays such as the Spectral Housing and Urban Cleansing: Notes on Millennial Mumbai published elsewhere.

The other 14 papers in the book are organised into five sections. The first three deal with urban history and geography, landscape, and culture. The other two sections relate to the media and the arts, and planning and governance in Mumbai. Then comes the manifesto that outlines a step-by-step re-visioning of the city. A brief account of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai and its collections is given at the end. The pick of the essays is the one by Aroon Tikekar on institutionalising the national consciousness in Mumbai. At one level, it is a rich account of the cultural leadership and how, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Mumbai was at the forefront of the liberal ideas, reforms, and free public discussion. At another and more important level, it seeks to drive home the point that civil society in the post-independence decades failed to prevent lumpenisation of the city.

The staggering socio-economic divide in Mumbai, where about 50 per cent of the population lives in slums, is the most pressing challenge. Hence, it is understandable that the book should have devoted more space for debating issues related to housing and physical planning.

While the planning history and the plans themselves are discussed, a documentation of how the politician-builder nexus and wanton violations of rules and regulations undermine the planning process is missing. In the absence of such an authentic data-based analysis, will mere suggestions to transfer more powers to the Corporation of Greater Mumbai and to develop the under-utilised government lands carry much weight?

Slum redevelopment

On slums, there are two viewpoints. One takes the position that the slum “eats out areas” meant for planned uses, while the other is more realistic and accepts it as an integral part of the city. In this context, Shirish Patel's view on slum redevelopment is contestable, but his case for reserving land for social housing and stepping up the supply of rental housing, despite problems with the rent control regime, will find wider acceptance.

Sections on labour history, wildlife, music, and films are a reminder to the policymakers that there is more to this multifaceted city than high-value real estate. Intangible aspects of the city deserve as much attention as the tangible ones. The absence of articles devoted exclusively to urban conservation — the primary focus of the book — is conspicuous. Probably, this is an indication that conservation, as traditionally conceived, may not be adequate to address the issues of Mumbai.

As a collection of essays, this book is inconsistent in depth and rigour. Some articles are in the nature of rambling thoughts and as such are unlikely to be of much use to the readers. However, the limitations notwithstanding, it does succeed in conveying that at the core of Mumbai's problem is one of right prioritisation. A course correction that places the social issues above the economic brooks no delay.

REVISIONING MUMBAI — Conceiving a Manifesto for Sustainable Development: Edited by Vimal Shah and Pankaj Joshi; Promilla & Co., for the Asiatic Society of Mumbai, C-127, Sarvodaya Enclave, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 750.

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