Human solutions for a human city

Anyone who has commuted on trains during rush hour will know there’s something deeply tolerant about the Mumbaikar

October 07, 2017 04:25 pm | Updated December 03, 2021 10:46 am IST

Not all 20th century urban thinkers were as celebratory about the modern city, especially when it was evoked as a triumph of individualism and technology. They cautioned against the ability of the city to create a hard shell of rationality and efficiency as it shed feudal past-lives.

According to German sociologist Georg Simmel, the tendency towards atomisation is to be guarded against. This refers to disconnectedness, divisiveness and fragmentation. Atomisation can affect individuals, groups and even entire communities.

For Simmel, true individuation creates inter-dependency and solidarity. It promotes diversity and creativity. Unfortunately, many modern systems of urban governance do not encourage this. They prefer weakened atomised units in any form. This way they can control and manage them more easily.

A move towards more technology, mechanisation and automation goes hand-in-hand with greater control. Inevitably, more rational, hi-tech efficiency creates robotic rather than modern citizens, and ironically, atomised individuation revels in mobs and crowds.

Modern paradoxes

Which brings us to Mumbai, a long-time poster city for Indian modernity. A city that thrives and revels in modern paradoxes. At first glance, it seems to be composed exclusively of crowds and mobs.


The stations pour out people commuting from faraway places every day, of the numerical magnitude of small nations. Its trains run mechanically to and fro on weatherbeaten tracks and creaking coaches, day in, day out.

Like all modern metropolises, the city is definitely cyborgic. Half human and half machine. It follows timetables fairly obediently. Trains and buses more or less run on schedule. People follow the broad rules of reaching their place on time, returning home to their families in the evening. They do their jobs with diligence.

The complication is that Mumbai is more human than cyborg. And it is this humanity that the city’s administration, not just the railways, relies on to keep the machinery going. If anyone has commuted on trains during rush hour, they will know that there must be something deeply human, perhaps even saintly, about the Mumbaikar. The fact that she can create a world of tolerance, laughter, and acceptance in those conditions is nothing short of heroic.

But to be human means to be made of flesh and bones and blood and sweat and therefore susceptible to dying.

When humans die in the machine, a large chunk of humanity in the city dies. And if there is no sincere and lasting response from the administration, then we can be assured that we are far less worthy of wearing the mantle of a modern city.

But the question is: what should the response be? Should it be more hi-tech interventions?


There are similar crowds managed by mechanical infrastructure in cities like Tokyo as well. Even there, crowds swell dangerously when there is a glitch in the matrix and trains come a few minutes late, creating a cascading effect on commuting crowds.

It would be tempting to compare the hi-tech infrastructure of that city to the poor one here and demand that we become more like them.

The fact is, an atomised, machine-like city is not what Mumbaikars want. They do not want hi-tech for the sake of hi-tech. They do not want infrastructure policy to favour atomised car-based commuting while public transport languishes.

Human solutions

Mumbai’s humanity should not be about submitting to bad infrastructure. Neither should it be about moving blindly towards hi-tech modernisation. What Mumbaikars want is already being lived out by them, but with no official support.

A large amount of residents, especially those who work hard for the local economy, live in slums where their work and residential lives are enmeshed, something which urbanists all over the world encourage.

The city’s labour force is ready to work flexible hours so that crazy crush loads in one direction are not the only choice commuters have. With advanced telecommunication systems, working from home on certain days and hours is also a real possibility.

All these are extremely relevant choices more in tune with a city that is genuinely modern and human in spirit such as Mumbai. This, more than anything else, needs to be factored into our response to the horrific stampede that occurred recently.

The writers are co-founders of, an urban network that’s active in Mumbai, Goa and beyond.

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