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Mumbai -- ethos and essence

What has happened to Mumbai! This is the lament one often hears when talking about the city’s ethos and personality. The changing dynamics of Bombay-Mumbai, the emergence of high-walled gated communities that are seeking to supplant traditional clusters, and the question of what future the city can look forward to, were the points of debate at the panel discussion on ‘Adrift or Sinking?’, following the launch of the book City Adrift: A Short Biography of Bombay. The book’s author Naresh Fernandes, economist Ajit Ranade, architect-writer Mustansir Dalvi and eminent architect Charles Correa, who launched the book, participated in the discussion.


City nitty-gritty: Eminent architect Charles Correa (right) releasing Naresh Fernandes’ book City Adrift at the Literature Live festival in the city

“Middle-class Bombay shops in access-restricted malls, exercises in parks operated by private developers, trades public transport for air-conditioned cars and aspires to live in gated communities. ... A city can flourish only if it has common ground to make common cause.” This is the sweet-sour note on which the book ends, and it was the talking point on which the discussion kicked off.

Watershed
Charles Correa remarked on the organization that went into Mumbai: “It’s quite different when a little town 100 or 150 years ago was a mess. All cities start out as a mess, as a bazaar. But once we got the structures, once the public spaces were there, you see the tremendous advantages of social spaces such as Marine Drive, where people come together and meet one another -- we need more such spaces. The watershed now is that we are going to get a city which is much more ‘them’ and ‘us’. This is going to change the politics of this place. To the extent that the people who don’t have access to these gated communities -- the middle class -- will have to move out of the city.” “It will end up something like Manhattan, which has the very rich and the very poor. People who go to New York and see Manhattan come back and say, why can’t we be like that. Manhattan is a city of offices mostly, but it has a great public transport system. No one uses a car there. Are we willing to give up our three cars?!”

Creativity
Ajit Ranade remarked that in terms of square footage, there are not that many high-rises yet. Secondly, he said, these structures will still need the “other” residents to come in every day and work to maintain their homes. Gated communities are not the way to go, he said, but we need to find ways to stem this unbridled growth. At the same time, he emphasized, the city has innumerable ways of expressing its creativity. He gave the example of Starbucks, which saw snaking queues when it opened in Kala Ghoda. An enterprising chaiwallah did roaring business selling tea to those in line for the Starbucks coffee! This can happen only in Mumbai, he said, adding that this spirit of enterprise would prevail.

Isolation
Mustansir Dalvi noted that there is a problem beyond the financial picture, and that is what can be termed the breaking down of the social contract. Homogenous communities are breaking down into isolated sections, and the primary cause for this is high land price. When prices are so high, no building project will be other than a gated community, he said, and isolation thus becomes enforced, and there is no question of establishing a deeper connection with the people of the city. “The marketplace that was Bombay is no longer going to remain the marketplace. We should not sanitize it to the point where it becomes no different from a gated community. “Historically the inner cities of Bombay have always had the very rich, and the very poor, almost the homeless, living in the same building, and there has never been a conflict about it because all the interactions would happen on the street outside. That is the sort of thing that is going to be severely threatened when I talk about the breaking down of the social contract.” Naresh Fernandes read a portion from his book talking about how regulatory measures had transformed the way the city livedand worked.

Energy
Charles Correa said that the developer is interested in making money, and that is his business. But, he pointed out, it is the duty of the authorities to ensure that when a building is built, there are enough schools and hospitals in the vicinity to serve its residents’ needs. This is not being done, he said.

He said that City Adrift looks at something even more important, the assemblage of such disparate people, how they come together, communicate, and together make up Mumbai. The British gave the structure and the infrastructure, but it was the sheer energy of the people that built it, he said, adding that this energy still lives in the city but needs to be used in a way that it can flourish along with the city. There is nothing wrong in making money; London was made by developers, but they had principles, they had ideas about public space.

“Never forget that we have lived through terrible injustices of rich and poor, but we have lived on what Naresh has called common ground for a common cause, in many cities. That is what we are losing, and cities which have lost it have gone -- like Johannesburg. Our myopia comes from irresponsibility, which is decades old. There is no planning and no restriction on FSI, which is what leads to imbalance.” However, Correa added, the book City Adrift tells us how to reverse it — by the common ground, the common cause which brought all these disparate people together to build the city.

City Adrift: A Short Biography of Bombay is published by Aleph, Rs 295

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